I didn’t get a chance to see the Vice Presidential debate last night, so instead I read the transcript this morning. From that reading, a few patterns emerged.
First, it’s obvious where Paul Ryan felt most confident and most engaged: on entitlement reform. This was the only policy area – including tax reform – where Ryan’s answers seemed both genuine and informed. That doesn’t mean he was right – it means he was doing more than mouthing talking points.
And both Biden and Ryan were more interested in drawing a sharp contrast in this area than were Romney and Obama. Obama generously suggested in his debate that he and Romney basically agreed on Social Security, while Romney was at pains to deny that any of his plans for undoing Obamacare would unwind the things that are popular about that law. Ryan eagerly embraced the possibility of Social Security privatization, and Biden slammed the door very hard on any Democratic cooperation with any voucherization of Medicare.
By contrast, it’s obvious where Joe Biden felt most confident and most engaged: on foreign policy. Again, that doesn’t mean he was right, but he clearly understood the policies he was advocating. And what was striking about Ryan’s responses in this area was the contrast between rhetorical lambasting of the Obama Administration’s record coupled with repeated agreement with things the Administration has actually done. I reasonable summary of Ryan’s perspective on foreign policy: a Romney Administration would have done mostly the same things that President Obama did, but if Romney did them they would be more “credible.”
Which points to the most striking contrast between the two men: the way they understood language – whether they treated speech as a signifier of action or as an act in itself.
The contrast was especially true in foreign policy, where Ryan raised almost no substantive objectives to the President’s policy but repeatedly asserted that the President “appeared” weak because he “called Assad a reformer” or “announced a deadline for withdrawal” or “didn’t stand up for American values,” but it wasn’t limited to that area. In domestic policy as well, Ryan repeatedly resorted to formulations suggesting that announcing a goal – 4% economic growth, for example – was the same as articulating a policy. By contrast, Biden repeatedly resorted to a formulation along the lines of “we said we’d do,” some policy action or other, “and we did it.”
I find the contrast interesting, because it inverts the standard trope of right-wing criticism of the Obama Administration, that all Obama does is “give speeches” rather than leading (I believe Ryan said that a couple of times last night as well). President Obama plainly has a very high opinion of himself as a persuader (too high, from the evidence of the record), and I’m not suggesting that a Romney Administration would stand there issuing pronouncements and not acting. But in the campaign, both Romney and Ryan talk as if talk were action, as if saying, “this will be so” will make it so. I have to believe that they believe this way of speaking is persuasive, but it’s profoundly unpersuasive to me – indeed, I find it exceptionally annoying.