The spectacle of the Democratic television networks and newspapers straining to make Joe Biden the Paul Revere of the flagging Obama campaign is one of the more entertaining sideshows of American politics since Jimmy Carter’s encounter with the dangerous swimming rabbit in the Everglades. One need seek no further than this desperate recruitment of the man my esteemed colleague Jonah Goldberg accurately described here about nine months ago as having a hot-air balloon for a brain, for so vital a service, to see how shaken the regime is by the debacle of the first debate between the presidential candidates. The endless patter of whether the debates mattered at all seems to have been answered by Governor Romney’s rise from a two-to-six-point overall deficit to a uniform one-to-two-point lead in the polls, even allowing for the delay in the traditionally Democratic polls, which went as silent as Jodie Foster’s lambs in the five days following the showdown in Denver.
Showing unsuspected powers of improvisation, the Democrats and their media echo chamber, who had been disparaging Paul Ryan as a robotic Inquisitionist and advocate of negative taxation for rich people, suddenly portrayed him as the personification of the computer — a misguided but inexhaustible storehouse of facts, a giant in debate, against whose siege guns the worthy journeyman Joe Biden would, like General McAuliffe at Bastogne, be armed only with pluck and truth. This is, indeed and lest we could forget, the same Joe Biden who plagiarized from a campaign spiel by Neil Kinnock (the most forgettable leader in the entire history of the British Labour party), and, among other exaltations of mind, taste, and loyal comradeship, referred to his chief as the only respectable and presentable African-American politician in decades.
This aging David, armed only with the virtue of caring and connection to the common people (whom, he told us four years ago, he consulted every Saturday in a diner in Wilmington that had in fact been closed for many years), hobbling into battle against the young Goliath, would fight to the last breath in defense of human compassion against the cold steel of the Republican soak-the-poor calculating machine. The future of America as a land where the little people might aspire to more than serfdom was at stake. Perceptive conservative commentators like Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal warned of the setup. The script was inexorable. Biden avoided howlers, Ryan avoided any appearance of dogmatism or failure to connect with ordinary people, and the Democratic media conceded that Ryan had not self-immolated but claimed a moral victory. Unlike the quietism of the Democratic polls after the first debate, the propagators of Bidenmania were ready this time with a spate of post-debate unscientific polls showing a smashing breakthrough for their man. It won’t fly.
On the issues, Ryan won on the budget; of course it has been possible to lower taxes on the middle class and raise revenues simultaneously, and of course John F. Kennedy’s measure, passed by Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan’s, accomplished this. Biden’s flippant attempt to replicate Lloyd Bentsen’s crack at Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) didn’t cut it and wasn’t appropriate. (Neither was Bentsen’s, but it worked.) On Afghanistan, Biden held the fort well enough about withdrawing in 2014, but Ryan made his point that there was no reason to disincentivize the Taliban from negotiating by broadcasting complete American withdrawal so far in advance.
The moderator moved briskly on to abortion, which should not be an issue in a presidential election at all, and hung it on what she represented as the history-making fact that both vice-presidential candidates are Roman Catholics, as if the adherents to that faith were the only people in the United States who have any reservations about abortion. Biden even trotted out a Latin phrase as he professed agreement with his Church’s position that life begins, and must be protected, at conception, but unctuously announced that he was not trying to impose that view on equally strong believers in other definitions of the beginning and sanctity of life. Ryan took the same view and denied a desire to impose anything on anyone, but voted his conscience, and successfully defended Romney and himself from Biden’s attempt to paint them as implacable adversaries of abortion in any circumstances. It is one thing for Biden not to seek to impose his views on others and something else for him to support, as he has, views directly contrary to those he espouses. And it is not a version of Roman Catholicism most of his co-religionists would recognize for him to support forcing the Roman Catholic Church to pay for the abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures desired by students and employees of Roman Catholic–affiliated organizations.
The whole debate on abortion is nonsense, because the laws are not going to change much, if at all. The state should not have or seek to have the right to force childbirth on a woman who doesn’t want to have a child, but Joe Biden is trying to suck and blow at the same time. He can’t swaddle himself in fidelity to the Holy See while playing footsie for 40 years with the abortion industry that largely considers disposing of a fetus to be morally indistinguishable from throwing out a dishrag. He isn’t just not imposing his wishes on people of different views; he is supporting abortion on demand at the taxpayers’ expense, and even at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church and the believers who support and fund it (presumably including himself when the collection plate gets to him). This is just hypocrisy. Abortions will occur and those that do occur should be socially unstigmatizing and medically as safe as possible.
The Roman Catholic Church, and especially the late pope, took away the free lunch of the pro-choicers (i.e., pro-abortionists), who used to enjoy a two-to-one public-opinion advantage, and now it is an even-split question. It is a political question only because the administrations and Congresses have dodged the issue in a cowardly abdication that presaged their performance in illegal immigration and a number of other major public-policy areas that it is their duty to address, and dumped it into the lap of the courts. Ryan’s stance on the issue probably bagged less support from viewers than Biden’s, but his integrity and consistency, compared with Biden’s sanctimonious waffling, probably made up for that.
As physical and behavioral candidates, Ryan won; he was an attractive, intelligent, and courteous young man. Joe Biden was what he is — a period piece, a havering, querulous, self-righteous (though somewhat amiable) hack, smiling derisively and constantly interrupting and speaking unintelligibly over his opponent. The pre-programmed Democratic response boomed forth that the “experienced” Biden had routed his opponent on Afghanistan and abortion. But all that can be said for the Democrats is that their candidate, on balance, was deemed by reasonably impartial people, even pro-Democratic CNN, to have drawn against his challenger, whose selection by Romney in August the Democrats greeted with window-rattling ululations of triumph because of Ryan’s supposed extremism and amateurism.
Two debates have gone and two remain. They are clearly going to have a large influence on the outcome and have sharply reshaped the polls. A 40-year congressional veteran prepped six days, a long holiday from a (not inconsolably deprived) campaign trail, and drew with a man a generation younger whom he failed to portray as a political and religious primitivist. In policy terms, the takeaways from the first two debates are the confirmation that this regime has no defense of its record except to attack a man who rode into the sunset nearly four years ago, from whom it inherited a country in better condition than it is now; and that the alternative Republican administration will propose a serious program of tax reductions, spending reductions, and tax and entitlement reforms that will finally grapple with the deficit, and that a Republican administration will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The choice is clear, and America and the world do not need another four years of Joe Biden as vice president. He performed adequately as the buffer between the incumbent and a President Pelosi and a President Boehner, but the country can do better, in both national offices, and the polls, albeit by a thin margin, indicate that it will. Mr. Vice President, you’re no Lloyd Bentsen.