Minus the smirks and smugness (which I suspect independent voters dislike), it was clear that Vice President Biden has done this before. His answers were chalk full of hyperbole, manufactured political “gravitas,” and an “I’ve-been-here-for 30-years-therefore-I-know-better” aura. In contrast, Congressman Ryan came off as articulate, earnest, and more wonky. At times, the debate felt like: “I know better because I’m Joe” vs. “Wait, Joe, I’m telling the truth, and here’s three reasons why.”
To this point, especially on foreign policy, the old adage of “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” rang true tonight. Biden played off of his “credibility” on foreign policy by trying to sound smart but using easy rhetorical positions that mask otherwise failed policies. On the other hand, Ryan was forces to defend difficult truths that require explaining (and, frankly, a deeper understanding of the geopolitical world we live in). It was a debate between feel-good foreign-policy rhetoric vs. tough truths of a dangerous world.
A few examples: On Afghanistan, Biden reiterated the administration’s failed (wait, let me be fair, failing) 2014 withdrawal deadline. He stuck to it, saying in effect that “from here on out the Afghans we trained should be doing the fighting. Not our American boys.” He insisted that the Afghan army is trained and therefore that they should do all the fighting. Boy, does that sound good . . . and it’s what all voters want to hear. But is it accurate? What if the Afghans aren’t ready? And what if al-Qaeda (and the Taliban) are actually resurgent? Ryan tried to thread this needle, getting into the details of the longevity of the Afghan surge and the fact that efforts in RC-East have been undercut by early troop withdrawals by this administration. Ryan wants our troops to come home as well; but if we leave behind gaping security holes, and the Afghans can’t secure it, then we’re leaving behind a problem that will only grow worse. So, while 2014 is certainly a goal, we might not meet it. It all depends on American interests. A tough truth, which nobody wants to hear . . . especially independent voters.
Another example is Iran. Biden emphasized the dramatic impact that economic and military sanctions have had on Iran, poo-pooing the idea of military action while saying, “Does anybody want another war in the Middle East?” Again, a great rhetorical argument: “Iran is bad, we’re doing all we can, but ultimately it’s not worth fighting for.” Ryan deserves a lot of credit for his response. He stood his ground, and explained why a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be tolerated. The very unfortunate reality of not tolerating a nuclear Iran is the possibility of war. Nobody wants war — nobody. But there is no sense in talking tough (which this administration isn’t even doing) if you’re unwilling to follow through. Ryan’s point was that there is no sense in speaking softly and also carrying a small stick — a tough truth. But Biden’s “we don’t want another war, and neither do you” rhetoric is likely attractive to voters.
Same goes for “ending the war in Iraq.” It’s easy for Biden to say “we ended it,” and more difficult for Ryan to explain why a status-of-forces agreement should have been signed in order to support Iraq’s nascent political development and blunt Iran’s influence. The same types of exchanges were had on Libya and Syria. Repeatedly, on foreign policy, Biden was using well-worn talking points that poll well with voters, whereas Ryan was arguing more nuanced, and more difficult, truths. I obviously side with the latrer — we live in a dangerous world that requires tough truths — but I’m not sure what undecided voters will think.