Two weeks ago, the 2012 US Presidential election race was all but over. President Barack Obama was starting to put clear blue water between him and his rival, Governor Mitt Romney. Then came the first Presidential debate in Denver and suddenly, it is all to play for.
Although America is split fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans (the liberals on the coasts vote blue and the good ol’ boys in the middle vote for whoever isn’t gay, black, or estranged from our Lord Jesus Christ), this year was always looking tricky for Mitt. That is not because Obama has done a stellar job, far from it. The economy is still a debt-ridden mess (although it is arguably in much better shape than it could have been had the Obama administration not acted decisively in 2009). Body bags are still flying home from Afghanistan and the Mullahs in Tehran are sticking two fingers up at Hillary’s carefully crafted Middle East policies. In any other year, with any other candidate, the GOP would fancy their chances. The trouble is that Mitt Romney is not an easy man to like (even for Republicans, many of whom will vote for him through gritted teeth) and likeability is a big deal in American politics. The crucial ‘swing’ voters, those strange people who are yet to make up their minds despite being bombarded with information about two ideologically distinct candidates for eighteen months, will often cast their vote on whom they trust and with whom they would like to have a beer.
So, full steam ahead for a second Obama term then? Not so fast. The first Presidential debate in Denver ten days ago was one of those rare set pieces that actually produced a clear winner and, surprisingly, it wasn’t the usually erudite Obama. A fired up Romney took a battering ram to a President who looked like he had just woken up after a hard night on the tiles. These debates don’t normally matter in American politics, but this one did.
America is split fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans (the liberals on the coasts vote blue and the good ol’ boys in the middle vote for whoever isn’t gay, black, or estranged from our Lord Jesus Christ).
As a result, what would otherwise have been a sideshow between the running mates assumed an added piquancy. Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, squared up to one another in Danville, KY on Thursday night with Martha Raddatz, the widely respected Chief Foreign Correspondent for ABC News as the moderator.
So, what did we learn?
Well, for a start, we can be sure that Biden had watched the tapes of the ‘debacle in Denver’ a few times. His tactic of steam rolling his opponent straight out of the gate was clearly borrowed from the Romney playbook. Ryan must have suspected this was coming, especially from Biden. Nevertheless, he seemed incapable of dealing with the initial onslaught and for the first 20 minutes or so gave a good impression of Doogie Howser MD in an ill-fitting suit. Indeed, had it not been for Biden’s rather childish strategy of mocking his opponent with constant eye rolling and laughing, he may have chalked up an unassailable lead. However, as the debate moved into economic policy, Ryan started to get into his stride and, on territory he knows well, started to give as good as he got. He also looked surefooted on some aspects of foreign policy, not hitherto considered his forte.
Many people had expected this debate to be a stalemate between the smooth DC insider, the classic ‘safe pair of hands’ and the young fact geek who would pepper the debate with statistics and dog whistles to the Republican heartland. In fact, Biden matched Ryan on stats and, as the debate wore on, Ryan started to look more like the kind of guy Americans might allow to be one heartbeat away from the Presidency.
On balance, Biden probably won on points. There were no decisive moments, although Ryan’s invocation of JFK was a rookie error.
We also learned that calling someone a liar is seemingly now an acceptable tactic. Whilst the tone of the debate was largely respectful, especially when compared with the playground antics of PMQs in the House of Commons, Biden referred to comments by Ryan as being a “bunch of stuff” and a “load of malarkey”. Biden likes the word “malarky” and has used it a lot over the years. It seems to be his rather hackneyed ‘Irish American’ way of saying that his opponent is full of shit. It was certainly taken that way.
On balance, Biden probably won on points. There were no decisive moments, although Ryan’s invocation of JFK was a rookie error, has he not seen the skewering Dan Quale got at the hands of Lloyd Bentsen in ’88? Biden also managed to embarrass the Congressman with a personal anecdote involving a letter Ryan had sent to the VP requesting for a constituent the very funding he was now criticising. But overall, there was no clear winner in the Denver sense.
It is not true to say that the Veep race doesn’t matter. Clearly it is important to have a balanced ticket and a running mate who makes up for a President’s deficiencies. Biden does this for Obama as he calms the fears of older white voters and brings a wealth of foreign policy experience. Ryan helps Romney look a bit more dynamic and he has some genuinely good ideas for re-establishing America’s fiscal discipline. However, by the time the main men square up again in New York on Tuesday, the Kentucky Derby will be forgotten. Then, the American people will be faced with what is actually quite an important choice. Where the US goes in the next four years matters to us all and the Commander in Chief still has the power to shape events like no one else on earth. My instinct is that Obama will still just about make it over the goal line, but that prediction is a lot less confident than it was two weeks ago.
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