What an inversion last night’s vice presidential debate represented. When Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan in August, there was a lot of talk about conservatives hoping the man at the top of the ticket would take inspiration and direction from his number two; instead, Ryan has taken a surprisingly low profile in recent weeks, and instead we had the oft-overlooked Joe Biden who was showing his boss the way last night, showing how to bring the fight to the Republicans. Amusingly, conservatives knocked back by Biden’s aggressiveness were quick to note that Obama would be making a big mistake next week if he tried to mimic Biden’s pugnacity. This, of course, is self-evident and beside the point: Obama would never be able to duplicate Uncle Joe, nor would it be in his interest to do so. But there are some specific pointers he could take from him:
1. Talk tax-cut specifics, not tax-cut size. Obama got bogged down in a back and forth with Romney about the size of the tax cuts Romney is proposing—Obama calls it a $5 trillion tax cut, an estimate of the revenue that’ll be lost by cutting rates 20 percent across the board as well as cutting corporate taxes and eliminating the estate tax, as Romney proposes; Romney retorts that it’s not, because that revenue will be made up by (totally unspecified) deduction and loophole closures. Biden fared much better by getting specific about who would be hit and who would be helped by the Romney proposal: he put Ryan on the spot about whether the Romney plan would hit the mortgage-interest deduction for the middle class, and he reminded viewers about the carried-interest loophole—“hedge fund loophole”—that allows Romney to pay such a low tax rate, and that Romney would leave untouched.
2. Link your middle-class roots to the 47 percent. Last week’s debate left many wondering why Obama had not invoked Romney’s 47 percent riff against him. It’s quite possible that the Obama campaign had decided to leave this to Biden, given how well situated he, as a son of Scranton, was to play this card against the Ayn Rand acolyte, Ryan. But Bidens deft use of the 47 percent showed what a strong card is is, and how easy it would’ve been for Obama to slip it in. Here’s Biden:
We knew we had to act for the middle class. We immediately went out and rescued General Motors. We went ahead and made sure that we cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that — when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, “No, let Detroit go bankrupt.” We moved in and helped people refinance their homes. Governor Romney said, “No, let foreclosures hit the bottom.”
But it shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend recently in a speech in Washington said “30 percent of the American people are takers.” These people are my mom and dad — the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, “not paying any tax.”
I’ve had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent — it’s about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class we’re going to level the playing field; we’re going to give you a fair shot again; we are going to not repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of rules for Wall Street and Main Street, making sure that we continue to hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super wealthy.
Now, Obama’s not going to get as entertainingly carried away on such a riff as Biden did. But he can make the key point—connecting Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent to his own family. In the first debate, he did mention his grandmother, the retired bank employee relying on Medicare and Social Security. Why not invoke her as part of the 47 percent—or, for that matter, invoke his single mother, relying on food stamps before she climbed to success as an anthropologist? Placed in this sort of personal context, the riff is even harder for Romney to shrug off.
3. Hit Social Security privatization. One of the most inexplicable moments of last week's debate was Obama’s declaration that he and Romney were not that far apart on Social Security. True, Romney’s platform does not propose anything for Social Security that approaches the radical restructuring that he offers for Medicare. But his running mate was a leading proponent of Social Security privatization just a few years ago, and the idea retains great currency within Romney’s party. It’s political malpractice not to point this out. Here's how Biden did it: “And with regard to Social Security, we will not—we will not privatize it. If we had listened to Romney, Governor Romney, and the congressman during the Bush years, imagine where all those seniors would be now if their money had been in the market.” Again, that's pretty basic.
4. Capitalize on war-weariness. One of Obama’s stronger points in the debate was going after Romney for proposing increases in military spending beyond what the Pentagon has even asked for. But Biden did an even better job on this front of expanding this critique to explicitly tap into America's war-weariness. Obama needs to bluntly remind voters that he has extricated the country from one war and is in the process of doing so with another. Here's how Biden did it:
On Iraq, the president said he would end the war. Governor Romney said that was a tragic mistake, we should have left 30,000 — he ended it. Governor Romney said that was a tragic mistake, we should have left 30,000 troops there. With regard to Afghanistan, he said he will end the war in 2014. Governor Romney said we should not set a date, number one. And number two, with regard to 2014, it depends....
And on Iran:
When Governor Romney’s asked about it, he said, “We gotta keep these sanctions.” When he said, “Well, you’re talking about doing more,” what are you — you’re going to go to war? Is that what you want to do?...So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk, what are they talking about? Are you talking about, to be more credible — what more can the president do, stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the ayatollah, we will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period, unless he’s talking about going to war.
5. Make hypocrisy a question of character. One of Obama’s problems last week was that he was suddenly faced with the dilemma his campaign had expected this year but had not yet had to face: how to deal with Etch-a-Sketch Romney. Simply painting Romney as a flip-flopper doesn’t suffice, because that might just assure some swing voters that Romney will revert from his “severely conservative” mode to his Massachusetts moderate mode once he becomes president. Again, Biden showed the way last night, even though he had less of a target in the more consistently conservative Ryan. He hit Ryan for having attacked the stimulus program at the same time as he was seeking money from it for his own district. The message was plain: Ryan and other Republicans were hypocrites. It was one of Ryan's weakest points of the night:
BIDEN: And I love my friend here. I — I’m not allowed to show letters but go on our website, he sent me two letters saying, “By the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?” We sent millions of dollars. You know…
RADDATZ: You did ask for stimulus money, correct?
BIDEN: Sure he did. By the way…
RYAN: On two occasions we — we — we advocated for constituents who were applying for grants. That’s what we do. We do that for all constituents who are…
(CROSSTALK) BIDEN: I love that. I love that. This was such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying — writes the Department of Energy a letter saying, “The reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.” His words. And now he’s sitting here looking at me.
Oof. Ryan looked like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. It should be even easier to do the same with Romney. Not to cast him simply as a weathervane, but as someone who will do and say whatever it takes to win the presidency—as, literally, grasping. Yes, I said it: literally!
Addendum, 1:30: It goes without saying that along with these specific issue-based lessons, there are stylistic pointers Obama can take as well. Such as: look like you’re having fun.
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