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So Let It Be Written, So Let It Be Done

I didn’t get a chance to see the Vice Presidential debate last night, so instead I read the transcript this morning [1]. 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.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "So Let It Be Written, So Let It Be Done"

#1 Comment By CharleyCarp On October 12, 2012 @ 9:58 am

To be fair, Romney will be able to get Republicans in Congress to support Republican policies, whereas all efforts of the President to get congressional Republicans to support Republican policies have thus far failed.

#2 Comment By Jim On October 12, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

Or, it could be that as the incumbents, Obama/Biden have actually done things regarding the issues being discussed, and Romney/Ryan have to talk about what they would do, since they have not yet had the opportunity to do anything, having not yet been elected to office.

Being simpler, that seems to be a much more reasonable explanation than some sort of rhetorical analysis or psychoanalysis, or, admittedly, any analysis of facial expressions, to which, to his credit, Mr. Millman did not resort.

#3 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On October 12, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

Many right wingers seem to have an almost mystical faith in the power of words to bring about results. They believe that Ronald Reagan brought an end to Communism the world over by saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” They believe the only reason the economy hasn’t recovered is that Obama has criticized businessmen and the delicate darlings can’t invest unless guaranteed freedom from all criticism.

Some people appeared to believe during the BP oil spill that if Obama would just get angry enough the oil would crawl back into its hole. And some people seemed to think that Ahmadinejad could make a nuclear weapon just out of beligerent talk.

#4 Comment By Raymond On October 12, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

I watched the debate and found it very interesting. When Biden turned Republican tactics upon Ryan, Ryan floundered. The Republicans have used this debate technique for years. Seems that the GOP missed one very important point. That when one uses something often enough, it might take awhile but others will do the same. Will be interesting to see if President Obama will do the same to Romney.
I do have on side point to make. Romney has repeatedly changed positions and has been caught in numerous LIES. These have been viewed by numerous world leaders. How would any foreign nation feel comfortable in trusting any Romney Administration agreement? I find this a legitimate downside for any foreign relations or trade agreement discussions for them also. Choices have consequences and the GOP numerous Lie campaign has disqualified Romney for me and brought shame on our political standing in the world society.

#5 Comment By William Dalton On October 12, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

CharleyCarp, that is one of the things I fear most about a Romney presidency.

The strongest argument that Paul Ryan made, and Romney before him, is that Obama/Biden made a lot of promises they failed to keep. The strongest argument that Joe Biden made is that while Romney and Ryan also make big promises about what they will achieve the means they propose to achieve them are incredible or dubious of securing those ends.

What neither side will criticize the other for, because both are guilty, is making foolish promises. The Democrats promise that Obamacare will solve the problem of unaffordable health care and the Republicans promise to “save” Medicare. But what no one is acknowledging is the economic fact of life that increased government spending to provide individuals health care, whether through direct payments, like Medicare and Medicaid, or enforced contributions to commercial insurance, like Obamacare and Romneycare, absent an increase in the supply of medicines and health care providers, will drive prices up, not down. The only way that either party’s promised schemes, if they follow through on them, will bring down costs is through price controls and rationing. And we know through experience how unpalatable and disastrous that will be.

If Republicans want to put supply-side economics into practice, they will abandon federal subsidies to individual health care, and instead dedicate some of that money towards putting health service providers in more places where they are needed, and subsidizing the development of new medicines and instruments of treatment, whose costs are kept high by the expense of their invention and the patent system that subsidizes them.

Finally, if Romney wants to follow through on his belief that recipients of government services should have “skin in the game”, I can think of no better means than taking what is left of money being spent on Medicare and Medicaid, and, instead of promising to pay health care costs up front, promise to pay 100% of anyone’s medical expenses during the last six months of their life, that period medical economists tell us are the most expensive and most unaffordable for the average American. In this way, every American who goes to the doctor or buys medicine, from the richest to the poorest, knows Uncle Sam won’t pay for it. They will have to pay for it themselves, or pay for the insurance to do so in their stead. On the other hand, the cost of obtaining medical insurance, when insurers can calculate that they will not be on the hook for the most expensive treatments their insureds will incur, will be greatly reduced and should be in the budget of anyone who professes to be a responsible citizen. Even those expenses in the last six months of life the government is to pay will be minimized, because patients, when they incur them, will expect to have to pay for them themselves. Therefore, all this can be accomplished without any government rules and regulations telling patients, doctors or insurance companies what they can and can’t do or what to charge for it.

Eventually, we might start observing the strictures of the United States Constitution, and get Congress out of the business of subsidizing health care altogether, transferring that responsibility to the states, if they will have them, and to the medical profession, as the word “profession” implies work undertaken out of a sense of gratitude and to give glory to God, not for personal gain or commercial profit.

#6 Comment By icarusr On October 12, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

Jim: Romney himself, in the fundraining speech, said that merely by virtue of his becoming president – without his having done anything – the economy would improve.

But that is not all. Read the blatherings of Peretz and Wieseltier on The New Republic – before the former was finally muzzled – and you will find that the only complaint they have is that Obama does not speechify and emote enough.

#7 Comment By Led On October 12, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

Uh, the incumbents have a record of presidential/vice presidential office to discuss, while the challengers do not. That’s sort of included in the terms “incumbent” and “challenger.” In other words, what Jim said.

That said, and snark aside, it does help to emphasize how much Biden’s strategy was to emphasize his experience in office and to overplay his well-known public character: the more aggressively in character he is, even to the point of being over-the-top, the more he comes across as the devil you know. Same deal with the direct appeals to voters to just trust him, use their common sense, etc. The message: we’re the incumbents, you know us, we’re not going to do anything crazy, don’t throw us over for these crazy and inexperienced ideologues.

#8 Comment By Charlieford On October 12, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

I think Essayist-Lawyer’s onto something. The Reagan-myth holds powerful sway in the GOP–the notion that you articulate something forcefully–with “resolve”–and it comes to be.

Why they believe this eludes me.

#9 Comment By David Naas On October 13, 2012 @ 12:17 am

Mister Dalton, you said, “instead of promising to pay health care costs up front, promise to pay 100% of anyone’s medical expenses during the last six months of their life”. I find this very interesting. Other than ensuring that last six months by means of one of Sarah Palion’s Death Panels (Republican, not Democrat), how does one really Know When a person’s “Last Six Months” will be? OTOH, if you were being satirical, one should be aware that the Right no less than the Left is amenable to the siren call of “liquidiation” of the uncomfortable products of ones policies.

#10 Comment By Beyng On October 13, 2012 @ 6:03 pm


Not to trot out the stereotypical, but were you not paying attention to the 2008 presidential campaign? A substantial proportion of the electorate obviously believed that forceful articulation of two words–hope and change–would cause hope and change to materialize, even if no one actually knew what hope and change meant in practice.

Why do we pretend that rhetorical tropes and lack of substance are exclusive to one party? Why do journalists and ordinary voters like to pretend that both parties are radically different? Has no one read their Anthony Downs?

#11 Comment By Johnny F. Ive On October 13, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

Charlieford, I think Republicans have narrowed down their approach to macho optimistic sophism regarding themselves and catastrophizing when the opposition party is in power. Democrats do the same thing but it wasn’t as evident until they rubber stamped Bush’s policy and Obama ended up governing much more like Bush.

Good things happened during Reagan and Clinton’s terms in office and thus they are associated with the good times. Politicians are speaking to their own target audience in a way that resonates with that audience. Divide and conquer the populace and continuation of virtually same policy. Is this a peek into what is in the heart of the hardcore Republican voter? Fluff with no substance?

#12 Comment By sal magundi On October 14, 2012 @ 10:12 am

And some people seemed to think that “some people seemed to think that Ahmadinejad could make a nuclear weapon just out of beligerent talk.”

this is an important example. the president of iran holds a weak executive power, and says bigoted things because he thinks it’s good local politics. this is expanded by the american press into “they” “want to” “kill all israelis,” as if ahmedinejad is representative of all iranians and had the power to make such a thing happen. he’s appalling but his talk alone can’t make anything happen.

#13 Comment By Charlieford On October 14, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

Beyng, I think you’re mistaken. No one that I’m aware of–candidate or voter–believed that just saying “hope” and “change” would accomplish anything. The slogans were just that, slogans meant to summarize what the candidate represented and was promising to work toward.

Similarly, George W. Bush’s slogan of 2004, “A Safer World and a More Hopeful America,” or John McCain’s of 2008, “Country First.”

What Paul Ryan and his ilk are articulating isn’t a slogan, but a strategy. They believe that America can shape the world by saying things.

I suspect it goes back to the mythology that has grown up around Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and subsequent events.

Apparently no one’s acquinted themselves recently with that old fallacy, “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.”

#14 Comment By M_Young On October 15, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

“Many right wingers seem to have an almost mystical faith in the power of words to bring about results. They believe that Ronald Reagan brought an end to Communism the world over by saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

He brought down communism by articulating the goal, andby real world actions. These include invading Granada, supporting the Contras, supporting the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, building up our navy and land forces, deploying medium range nukes to Europe. Now you can criticize any or all of these policies, but it is willfully ignorant to say that they had no effect on the Soviet regime. And it is ignorant to say that the vision articulated at Berlin was not a guiding principle behind all of these policies.

#15 Comment By cfountain72 On October 16, 2012 @ 10:42 am

Perhaps it was just an oversight on your part, but I think you forgot to mention the same thing that many current GOP’ers have forgotten/never learned: Reagan did one more thing: He actually talked ‘with’ the enemy. The other items you mentioned had varying degrees of import, but having the willingness and charisma to sit down and discuss matters with the leaders of the USSR was crucial. It is also the one thing that got him attacked by members of his party for being too ‘appeasing’ to the the Soviets. And it is the one thing that will get you called an ‘appeaser’ today as well.

There is an important distinction between the Romneyite nonsense that talking strongly ‘at’ someone is the way that conflicts and disagreements should be handled, versus the notion that yes, if we truly want to avoid war and achieve some things in the foreign policy arena, our leaders will have to sit and talk ‘with’ the leader of whatever country we’re having an issue with.

Instead of this, we are constantly told that you would have to be an Muslim-loving, flag-burner to sit with the leader of Iran to discuss their nuclear program. Yet, this is the adult, grown-up thing to do. And the one thing Romney (nor Bolton nor Senor or…) would never dare do. And, so, WE will pay the price for his hubris and intransigence.

Peace be with you.