The Second Debate
The first minute was fine. Then Joe Biden smiled, broadly. We asked ourselves, “Why is this man smiling?”
For the next ten minutes, the Vice President continued to smile, Cheshire Cat-like. What, we thought, can he be thinking that he’s lighting up this way?
In fact, he wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t aware, until perhaps half way through the ninety minute set-to, that candidate Paul Ryan was doing a pretty fair job of ducking, weaving, bobbing, and getting off the canvas again and again.
Biden stopped smiling, finally.
That was a relief. Because for a while, we were forced to think that the Vice-President wasn’t taking the events of the evening seriously. Or his opponent.
It says something — we don’t know what exactly — when millions of viewers around the country, already familiar with the arguments and counter-arguments being made — focus on one man’s bright white teeth. What does he use to get them so white, we ask? Then, we ask, what’s so damned entertaining? Maybe he has a secret plan he’s waiting to spring on Ryan and knowing this, he’s smiling in anticipation. That turned out not to be true.
On the other half of the split screen, Ryan had frozen his features into the mask that Mitt Romney wore during his debate with the president. It was difficult to read. To some it looked as condescending as occasionally Biden sounded. To others it appeared Ryan was wide-eyed and smiling because he really pitied the older man who, to his mind, didn’t understand what was going on in the world. Ryan’s a newby. He’s confident as that exactly because most of his cohorts in the House are also newbies. And newbies don’t have a lot of patience or tact. They want what they want when they want it, and people who stand in their way are to be patiently ignored.
Instant polls, much to our own surprise, gave Biden the edge. We called it a draw.
There were two main thrusts to the debate. Biden spent a lot of time doubling back to the first debate to pick up what many wish had been said earlier and forcefully by the president. He included the 47 per cent remark, and added Ryan’s new 30 per cent of the nation who are “takers”. He tackled Ryan’s written appeal for bail-out funds, against which he had voted in Congress. He went after the hawk-like suggestions of Romney/Ryan that the end of the war in Afghanistan was a conditional event, not a certain one. And in the same manner, conditionally, Ryan was caught in a tax squeeze, unable or unwilling to cement the Republican version of a new tax strategy. Numbers were tossed from one side of the table to the other, batted as meaninglessly as tennis balls over a sagging net. Biden was playing defense offensively.
On the other hand, Ryan rose to the Social Security crisis with what may have been skewed figures but he did it personally, detailing the value of Social Security to his own family. This had the short-term effect of calming nerves around the countryside about the Republican plans for changing, or as the Republicans put it, “saving” Social Security and Medicare. Whether or not the Romney/Ryan administration would make changes to the safety nets so deeply ingrained and important to millions of needy Americans is still an unknown. But Ryan at least sounded reasonable and direct.
Martha Raddatz did a sensational job as moderator, controlling both men and their own worst inclinations. And she managed to do what PBS’s Jim Lehrer had not done: follow-up. This was especially hard on Ryan who had clearly been directed by Romney’s team to do no harm, to agree only with Romney, not go out on his own limb.
There were topics which did not surface, and for which there should have been time. Immigration for one, something that matters to the Latino population now and for the future. The disconnect between women voters and, at least as polled, the Romney/Ryan approach to women’s healthcare. Our continuously crumbling infrastructure. In fact, the entire landscape of jobs, jobs, jobs was mentioned only in passing, when Biden pointed out that one way to better economic health, the president’s Jobs Act, had been shot down by the Republicans in Congress.
Tax issues rose from their recumbent rumbling only to further confuse the viewer. No one watching had any better idea from either candidate of how to make the tax code not only fairer but more effective at stanching the flow of money that continues to comprise our growing deficit. Clearly the Republicans are not going to give upon their plan to grant largesse to the people who need it least, which points to the middle class and lower income earners as the probable fall guys. Nothing resembling other solutions came up: a value-added tax, increasing sales taxes, the separation of capital gains rates and earned income rates which now so clearly give the wealthy a break.
The continuing energy needs of the nation went unexamined.
Perhaps Martha Raddatz’s approach — nine separate categories of questions — should have been reduced to, say, five. By leaping around the board as she did, she did not allow for extended grappling with particular problems. This is what we feel the country wanted to hear.
Jobs, healthcare, taxes, wars, and perhaps education.
Those five areas explored more thoroughly might well have knocked some voters off their independent perches and forced them to make choices.
Which, incidentally, the country doesn’t really want to do.
Despite knowing that the future is questionable, that progress in some areas has halted altogether, that there will have to be some substantive changes to the philosophies of governing in this country if the nation is to rebound towards health and increased international influence, the voting public doesn’t want to hear. They like what they have. They’re going to vote that way, too. The party which promises the least disturbing changes is going to win the election.
Americans do not want to give up what they have and what they need. Fearing that change will mean altering life-styles and their own chances at the American dream, the public watches the debates without breathing. Very few votes will be won or lost between now and November 6th.
Whether we heard truth last night from either side seems to be the last thing viewers cared about. Which is why Mr. Biden’s glowing tributes to his dentist captured so much attention. What listeners and viewers alike were forced to hear —after concentrating on Mr. Biden’s pearly whites — were hints, clues, perhapses. There was no reason to smile and there was every reason to satisfy seriously the gaps in the public’s understanding of the future.
The debate has been rated a tie. Biden did his job. Ryan was not blown out of the water.
And we are left waiting still for definitive statements about how each party plans for our future.
From that perspective, the second debate – though moderately entertaining – failed.