Obama's Bulldog: scattered thoughts about the 2012 Vice-Presidential debate

>> Friday, October 12, 2012

Back in the 19th Century, Charles Darwin was a shy and what they called a retiring man.  Didn't much care for public confrontation.  Much preferred doing the kinds of things we laypeople think of when we think about someone being a scientist--he liked observing, doing experiments (it gets unappreciated, how much of his groundwork for his Theory Of Natural Selection was based on breeding experiments he did in his own backyard with plants and small animals like rabbits), taking copious notes, reading relevant works from a wide variety of disciplines (not just biology and geology, but, most famously, the works of the economic philosopher Thomas Malthus, which provided Darwin with insights into scarcity as a selective force), etc.

Which was unfortunate, in a way, because that isn't the only thing a scientist does.  I mean, it can be, but part of the profession is disseminating your ideas, whether one does that by teaching, writing papers and submitting them to peer-reviewed publications, attending symposiums, etc.  This was all shiny and new in Darwin's day--the word "scientist" itself wasn't even invented until Darwin was twenty-four years old.  Science--or Natural Philosophy, if you were old school, was still figuring out its rules, customs and culture in spite of the fact the Royal Society in London had been around since the 17th Century.  And natural selection wasn't just a novel idea of interest to the Natural Philosophers--or scientists, if you were down with neologisms--who had been discussing speciation by evolution for decades when Darwin came around with a mechanism: touching on the origins of life and humanity and man's place in the universe and such cosmic questions, evolution by natural selection was of general interest to the public-at-large.  So it was a damn shame, in a way, that the guy to first come up with a detailed, researched, well-developed mechanism for evolution was a guy who really, really just wanted to stay home with his wife, kids, library and rabbits and not talk to anyone, thanks very much, and didn't really like writing it all up, much less going in front of a crowd--even a friendly one, much less a skeptical or even hostile crowd--and even just reading what he'd written up.

The good news for ol' Chuck is he didn't have to.  Friend of his, brilliant guy named Thomas Henry Huxley, "T.H." to the history books, was more than happy to go out there and kick some ass for science.  Huxley was smart, articulate, could master a mental library of relevant facts and arguments at a second's notice, and was all-in-all a skilled orator and debator.  He was also known to have no patience whatsoever for idiots and could be extremely rude when his patience was tried or snide and what we would now call snarky even when his patience was well-rested and tanned, just back from a nice trip to the coast for a few days.  (My personal favorite Huxley anecdote: when Huxley's longtime rival and sparring opponent Samuel Wilberforce, a Bishop in the Church Of England, was killed by a fall from a horse, Huxley allegedly commented that it was the first time the Bishop's brains came in contact with reality and it was fatal.  Not nice.  At all.  But funny.  Pretty damn funny.  Sorry, but it is.  Cruel and funny.)  Huxley was so wonderfully aggressive as a proponent for and defender of Darwin's work, he was dubbed "Darwin's Bulldog", an appellation he seems to have happily embraced and made his own.

I guess you might be able to see where I'm going with that.  If not, read the fucking title of the post, eh?

If we see some kind of movement in the polls next week, because of this debate, it will probably be the first time in history the Vice-Presidential debate has mattered.  So it doesn't really matter that Obama's Bulldog came out snarling and barking and pretty much treated Representative Paul Ryan like a chew toy.

My Dad and a then-wife once had a dog--not a bulldog, but a little brown dachshund called Hobbit.  And there was this one trip up to the mountains where my family is from where everyone who had a dog brought their dog, and so Hobbit was there and so were these other dogs belonging to family members.  And, anyway, Hobbit gets ahold of one of the other dogs' chew toys, this little hot dog with eyes thing that I suppose was meant to convey the idea of a "wiener dog", aptly enough, and she takes it under the dining room table and proceeds to methodically dismember it.  Off come the eyes, the little sewn-on tail, the mouth, these little legs it has; if it's sewn on to the stuffed shell of the hot dog, it comes off.  And then when she's done, she gets up, walks away, leaving the dismantled toy there under the table, and she never looks at it ever again.  Utter contempt.  It's dead to her.  A mean thing to do, I guess, as far as any other dogs who liked that disintegrated chew toy may have been concerned.  Maybe not so mean if you look at it from her perspective and consider that the toy--which looked sort of like a dog but was really a cheap stuffed sausage sort of thing--was kind of an insult to a bona fide "wiener dog" merely by existing, a mockery of a lie sort of thing, stuffed but without substance, representational but ersatz, somebody's idea of a bad joke.  We have to give her this much, anyway: she didn't express her final contempt by pissing on the pieces.  Though I imagine she might have thought about it.

That there is what you call a metaphor, though the story is completely true.  If it weren't, I would have claimed Hobbit was a bulldog even though it would have made the part of the story where she dismantled a parody of herself a little harder to understand, because "Obama's Dachshund" sounds kind of stupid.

A conservative Facebook friend (and regular reader of the blog: hi) said he didn't think last night's Vice-Presidential debate advanced the Democrats' agenda at all.  If he means that it didn't persuade anyone still sitting on a fence at 8:00 PM Thursday night to start writing checks to the Obama campaign and salivate to vote Obama/Biden next month, I guess that may be true.  But go back to section II, above (first paragraph, before I started reminiscing about that silly little dog): if last night's debate made a polling difference, it would be a first.

What it did do, I think, was reassure the Democrats' base that the Obama campaign has a pulse, calmed down some of the panic that came in the wake of the President's limp performance in the first debate.  And I think it mostly neutralized Paul Ryan, who was supposed to be some kind of genius policy wonk and came across as kind of vague and dodgy unless you were too far invested in his reputation as the GOP's Sir Galahad to notice.  Which I think were the things Biden was supposed to do.  Even if there were some reason to think Vice-Presidential debates were statistically significant, this was a point in the campaign where what the Democrats really needed was a holding action, which they got.

And it was entertaining.  For some of us.  I mean, I'm sure there were people for whom Biden came off as a bully and Ryan came off as a poor lamb, but for a bunch of us Biden came across as the guy who whipped Paul Ryan's ass in the Vice-Presidential debate.

It was a nice reminder for some of us that Joe Biden was a serious, perennial candidate for the Presidency itself, and not just some poor schlub asshole who got picked to fill out a ticket.

One of the funny things about the Vice-Presidential debate is what it illustrates about expectations.

Prior to the Presidential debate, everyone on the left was expecting the gaffe-prone Romney to fall off the stage or something while the smooth, intellectual, articulate Obama sliced him into little ribbons.  Which didn't happen.  The President sounded exhausted and Romney was a smooth talker; Romney lied a lot and reversed a lot of his previous positions (which were, in turn, reversed again by his campaign over the course of the following week), while the President sounded less engaged than that goddamn chair Clint Eastwood got into an argument with during the Republican National Convention.

The punchline to that is the same thing happened in reverse last night.  I can't tell you how many conservatives I've heard since Paul Ryan was picked as the running mate who were all gleeful and excited and salivating over how Paul Ryan was going to totally kill Joe Biden at the debate; this morning they all seem to be angry and sad (the wonderful Internet neologism that comes to mind, actually, is "butthurt") because Joe Biden was mean and rude and hurt Paul Ryan's feelings or something, I dunno.  Paul Ryan is a grown man and he went into politics at an early age and made it his chosen career; if he can't take a good old-fashioned whuppin', he went into the wrong line of work.

Romney and Biden won by not sucking, and Obama and Ryan lost by not being all they were cracked up to be.  This probably means absolutely nothing for who would be a good President, which is probably just as well because a Biden/Romney ticket would be kind of stupid and thankfully it's too late for that.

Let me join the chorus singing the praises of debate moderator Martha Raddatz, who didn't put up with a lot of shit from either side and called both sides out when they didn't answer questions.

There are going to be conservatives who will--I think correctly--claim that Raddatz called out Ryan more often.  What they will fail to notice with that observation is that Ryan had to be called out more because he stubbornly refused to answer questions.  Repeating your talking points doesn't make them true the second or fifteenth time; and when you're asked for specifics, a vague five-point plan consisting of banalities like "we'll create more jobs" and "we'll invest in energy" aren't actually, you know, specific.  The only questions Ryan answered directly and with relevant details were the ones regarding his religion and abortion.

I think I'm going to get into this a little more specifically in one or two ways in a moment--I don't have an outline here, if you didn't notice--but I am going to tease this out of the previous paragraph: a major part of how Paul Ryan sucked as a debater last night was that he not only pivoted on just about every question, but he pivoted obviously and badly.  And neither Raddatz nor Biden were having any of it.  Kudos to them both for not putting up with it.  And piss on Ryan for thinking he could get away with it.

I guess that's what happens when you're used to coasting on your reputation as some kind of policy genius.

Speaking of Ms. Raddatz.  Holy shit.  I cannot believe this is a real thing:

But it is!  This is the real Karl Rove, Dark Lord Of The Sith, petulantly whining because a debate moderator actually moderated instead of just sitting there.  How dare she ask questions and call time and try to control the proceedings in any manner or form?  This is what happens when you let women put on shoes and leave the kitchen between pregnancies, people!  Do you know, Mrs. Raddatz sounded like someone whose negligent husband allows her to read books and newspapers?  My God, she was talking about visiting Afghanistan--I just assumed she meant that was the name of the middle school her children attend that she visits for PTA meetings and bake sales, but do you think it's possible she really meant Afghanistan, the country?  And if so, how did she not absorb any of the lessons they can teach us in the West about the proper place of women in society, hrm?

Whatever.  Seriously, though, how big a dick is Karl Rove, whining about the debate moderator because his guy can't rise to the occasion?  I knew he was a big dick and all, but that staggers me a little.  What a little priss.

Jim Lehrer sucked, but that isn't why Obama sucked at that debate.  Obama sucked because he choked, basically.

Speaking of.  I listened to these debates on NPR, and before the VP debate they had Lehrer on to defend his own lousy performance.  Which was kind of sad.  To hear Lehrer tell it, he thinks the job of a debate moderator is to basically be a cue card.  Which is a head-scratcher, obviously, because why not just save a few bucks and use an intern with a Sharpie and a stack of posterboard if that's the moderator's role.  I dunno if Lehrer got paid, but I assume they at least per diem-ed him, and his lunch probably cost more than sending Fred down to the Office Depot, right?

So here's an example of Paul Ryan being a shit debater.  Ms. Raddatz says:

Gentlemen, I want to bring the conversation to a different kind of national security issue, the state of our economy. The number one issue here at home is jobs. The percentage of unemployed just fell below 8 percent for the first time in 43 months. The Obama administration had projected that it would fall below 6 percent now after the addition of close to a trillion dollars in stimulus money. So will both of you level with the American people? Can you get unemployment to under 6 percent, and how long will it take?

And Joe Biden says he doesn't know how long it will take, and he says:

We can and we will get it under 6 percent.

Let's look at the—let's take a look at the facts. Let's look at where we were when we came to office. The economy was in free fall. We had—the Great Recession hit. Nine million people lost their job, 1.7—$1.6 trillion in wealth lost in equity in your homes, in retirement accounts from the middle class.

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—and 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% 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 taxes.

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 superwealthy.

They're pushing the continuation of a tax cut that will give an additional $500 billion in tax cuts to 120,000 families. And they're holding hostage the middle-class tax cut because they say, we won't pass—we won't continue the middle-class tax cut unless you give the tax cut for the superwealthy. It's about time they take some responsibility.

Now, look at what Biden did there.  It was smooth.  It was skilled.  What he does there is point to a legitimate accomplishment of the Obama Administration--expanding the Bush Administration automotive bailout and using it to restructure the corporations to profitability, and uses that to pivot to talking about taxes.  It's such a smooth pivot, I have to admit I missed it when I was listening to the debate last night and didn't catch it until I looked at a transcript of the debate to get the context for Ryan's really awful pivot.

And here it is:

But we're going in the wrong direction! Look at where we are. The economy is barely limping along. It's growing at 1.3 percent. That's slower than it grew last year, and last year was slower than the year before. Job growth in September was slower than it was in August, and August was slower than it was in July. We're heading in the wrong direction.

Twenty-three million Americans are struggling for work today. Fifteen percent of Americans are living in poverty today. This is not what a real recovery looks like. We need real reforms for a real recovery, and that's exactly what Mitt Romney and I are proposing. It's five-point plan. Get America energy-independent in North America by the end of the decade. Help people who are hurting get the skills they need to get the jobs they want. Get this deficit and debt under control to prevent a debt crisis. Make trade work for America so we can make more things in America and sell them overseas and champion small businesses. Don't raise taxes on small businesses, because they're our job creators.

He talks about Detroit. Mitt Romney's a car guy. They keep misquoting him, but let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know. This is a guy who—I was talking to a family in Northborough, Massachusetts the other day, Cheryl and Mark Nixon (sp). Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them — two of them, Rob (sp) and Reid (sp), were paralyzed. The Romneys didn't know them. They went to the same church. They never met before.

Mitt asked if he could come over on Christmas. He brought his boys, his wife and gifts. Later on he said, I know you're struggling, Mark (sp). Don't worry about their college; I'll pay for it.

When Mark (sp) told me this story—because you know what, Mitt Romney doesn't tell these stories.

The Nixons told this story. When he told me this story, he said it wasn't the help — the cash help; it's that he gave his time, and he has consistently. This is a man who gave 30 percent of his income to charity, more than the two of us combined. Mitt Romney's a good man. He cares about a hundred percent of Americans in this country.

And with respect to that quote, I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way.

Okay, so what the fuck?  The question, you'll recall, was about job growth.  Biden didn't answer the question, but he waved a hand at it.  First line: "We can and will get it under six percent."  Doesn't say how, doesn't say when, but he introduces himself to the question, waves "hi" to it, shakes its hand before he wanders off.  Ryan?  Not so much.  First, Ryan talks about economic growth in general.  Or the lack of it.  No policy prescriptions whatsoever.  But that's before it gets weird.

"Mitt Romney's a car guy."  Okay, this has nothing to do with unemployment.  At all.  The phrase itself conjures up an image of Mitt Romney being like The Onion's hysterical version of Joe Biden, washing his Trans Am in the White House driveway, but of course we know this isn't what Ryan's getting at (we assume it isn't): while it's easy (and funny) to imagine salty, earthy Joe Biden tinkering with his spark plugs and lovingly detailing the interior of a whitetrashmobile while swilling cheap beer and listening to '70s Classic Rock, one wonders if Romney knows his driver's first name.  But okay, seriously, we assume Ryan's alluding to George Romney's tenure as AMC's CEO in the 1950s, right?  Which is maybe like a high school dropout applying for a medical license on grounds his dad used to work in a hospital, but okay: Mitt Romney's famously proud of his dad and I can see how your old man's success at a job when you were a little kid gives you a spiritual affinity for a product or profession.  I still, after more than thirty years, have a reverence for firefighters going back to my own Dad's brief career as one, despite the fact that my own contact with fires mostly involves setting them in grills and fireplaces.

But, no.  No, that isn't what Ryan's talking about.  Nor is Ryan referring to Mitt Romney knowing NASCAR owners, though this isn't surprising, as Romney probably wouldn't appreciate having that brought up again.

No, Mitt Romney is apparently a car guy because he knows some people who were crippled in a car accident.

What?  This has to be the worst pivot I think I've ever heard.  I get what Ryan's trying to do, which is obvious.  What I don't get is that this is how he does it.  "No, Mitt Romney's a lot nicer and more empathic than you might have thought with all the times he's been quoted about '47%' and letting the car companies go bankrupt--he's a car guy, which doesn't mean what you thought it meant (that he likes working on cars, maybe), it means he knows people who have been in car wrecks and he's nice to them."

It's such a lousy turnaround, it's hard to process.  Which could be the point, I guess--maybe it's like the Chewbacca defense or something.

I also have to say this, even though I think I might sound like an asshole doing it.  Great on Romney for offering to help these folks out, but I have friends who are paralyzed, one of them being a very good and dear friend who is married to one of my oldest friends, and she's been in wheelchair since college, so twenty, maybe more than twenty years.  And while helping her out with any of her bills would have been appreciated, I think the biggest and most problematic bills my friends faced were bills for medication, for physical therapy, for surgeries, for all the myriad health complications you might not even think about that arise from not being able to move from the waist down.  Maybe it's kind of shitty of me to ask whether Romney was being generous enough--offering to pay for college is plenty generous, after all.  But I don't have any idea how old these kids were and whether college was an imminent bill for them or an abstraction a decade or more away, and meanwhile there are pills every day and collection notices from the ambulance company and was the ER wholly covered or what were the Nixons' deductibles?  I guess it just strikes me from my own personal-though-indirect experience that maybe there's something just a little clueless about Romney's undeniably generous offer, but if I were a billionaire talking to my friends about their financial situation arising from a permanent debilitating injury, I might be less concerned about college in however many years and might want to know if I could help with a doctor's bill due yesterday.  Though, for all I know, the Nixons' were well-off or had generous coverage, or their kids were covered by Medicaid, even (as improbable as that may seem given the Romneys' presumed social circle), and it wasn't so much of an issue.  I suppose this also shows up the problems with making your case via an anecdote like this: I really don't know enough about the Nixons' situation to know what this particular gift horse's dentition signifies.

But it's weird, anyway.  And it's a shit pivot.  Both candidates pivoted, let's keep that straight.  But Biden pirouetted like a dancer and Ryan clomped around like a longshoreman wearing Boris Karloff's Frankenstein boots.

One of the things that makes a Presidential or Vice-Presidential debate on foreign policy kind of meaningless is how unfair it is to the incumbent.  That isn't sticking up for Obama or Biden in any particular way, it was just as true for Bush and Cheney when they were running for re-election and for any other candidate.

The advantage the guys on the outside have is that they really don't know what they're talking about.  Which is kind of a slight on Romney and Ryan, though it's generally applicable as well; Romney and Ryan are just really bad about boldly going forward when they don't know chicken salad from chicken shit, to steal a favorite line from Lyndon Johnson (who, yes, I know, stole it himself).

The problem the incumbents have is that they actually have the intelligence briefings and the strategic situation reports and the tactical updates and all that.  And are in on the secret cabinet meetings and late night bull sessions and early morning classified conference calls and all that.  So when you ask Joe Biden what he's going to do about Iran, he can't exactly start blabbing about any secret plans the Administration has, unless he really thinks getting impeached and sharing a corridor with Bradley Manning is totally worth an "In your face, Ryan!"  (It's not.  Do we even need to say that?)

During that part of last night's debate, I sent out a tweet along the lines of betting that Joe Biden wishes he could say "Stuxnet".  Stuxnet, if you don't recall and are too lazy to hit that Wikipedia link, is a software worm that exhibits this really intriguing and strange behavior: while it promiscuously spreads itself over computer networks, it only actually does anything other than reproduce if it discovers itself on a computer configured to run a device called a programmable logic controller, but that isn't all: what it does if it finds itself on a susceptible computer setup is that it finds out if that particular setup happens to be running a centrifuge--the exact kind of centrifuge used by Iranian nuclear labs to refine radioactive materials, coincidentally (not)--and tells the machine to shake itself to death while reporting back that, no, it isn't really sweding They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, it feels fine, thanks for asking.  And then the machine breaks and is really expensive to replace and you don't get your fissile materials anytime soon.

Sixty percent of Stuxnet infections occurred in Iran, and there's almost certainly only two places such a sophisticated and elegantly targeted program could come from.  Israel and the United States.  And in this case, that's most likely the same place, because Stuxnet was most likely a joint espionage project embarked upon by American and Israeli intelligence services.

This is cool.  Assassinating physicists isn't.  We may or may not be doing that, but somebody is, and I think I can safely guarantee that if we aren't the ones systematically murdering top Iranian scientists, we know who is doing it.  And either way, Joe Biden certainly can't talk about that.

If, heaven forbid, Mitt Romney is elected President in November, neither he nor Paul Ryan will be able to talk about cyberwarfare and targeted killings, either.

Biden also can't talk about any plans the United States may have with regard to Israeli or joint American-Israeli military strikes--e.g. drone strikes or site bombings.

Nor can Biden talk about the massive elephant in the room, which is the fact that everyone knows and no one will admit that Israel has the bomb.  In all likelihood, they have more warheads than Iran could ever hope to manufacture in the foreseeable future even if Iran joins the proliferation club, and (just as importantly, if not moreso), Israel has delivery systems for whatever devices they (unofficially) have.  Nobody wants an arms race in the area, but we might also consider that the real weapons gap in the region is that Israel is packing guns to their neighbors' knife fight.

Biden went the security safe route and pointed out that a nuclear bomb is more than having fissile materials.  You have to be able to come up with a working warhead and then you have to deliver it, and Iran isn't in much position to do either of those things any time soon, at least so far as anyone knows.  I guess I'm taking advantage of my own piece of the collective ignorance, since I have access to exactly the same intelligence info Mitt Romney does.  But so far as anyone knows, the Vice-President is right: Iran wants a bomb and is working on it, but they're nowhere near having an actual weapon.

And speaking of not knowing what you're talking about and talking anyway: seems the big talking point in the conservative frothosphere and on Ryan's checklist last night was that the Administration initially sort-of-misidentified the source and cause of the attack on the Libyan consulate last month.  Actually, what happened was that they made some tentative statements and failed to state that it was a terrorist attack and expressed the belief that it was part of a protest, because that's what they knew at the time.

Looks like what they knew was wrong, and that may be a failure of intelligence.  I mean, I think you could say it was a "failure" in the sense that the intelligence people were wrong, but whether you could say it was a failure in the sense that something broke hasn't, at least so far as anyone outside the Administration knows, been determined.

This is what military types call "fog of war", right?  Or what Donald Rumsfeld once ineptly and hysterically laid out a kind of Zen taxonomy for back in 2002.  And the smart thing when you're figuring out your "known knowns" and "unknown knowns" and "known unknowns" and, fuck it, whatever, is to say as little as possible until you can make a competent statement.  Which, let's not forget, is the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney did.

It's a little odd and jarring to have Ryan, at the debate last night, attacking the Administration for not saying very much when they didn't know anything, when his guy said too much when he knew nothing at all.

Finally, this post-debate photograph by Michael Reynolds at Associated Press is worth about as many words as this entire blog post:


Dana Teel Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 3:27:00 PM EDT  

Just wanted to say, awesome post Eric! You’re not nearly as entertaining as Jim, but then you didn’t mention Nazi’s even once. I didn’t watch the debate, like many others I’ve already voted, ballot was in the envelope with a valid 1st class stamp attached ready for mailing. I don’t find debates to be particularly entertaining, useful or informative. I get frustrated that the candidates will not answer the questions, even if called on it several times. That being said, it’s not that I don’t get exposed to significant parts of the debate, mostly because I seek out sources such as your blog. Keep the posts coming sir!

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