The Cannonball

Just did an appearance on KCRW’s fine show “To the Point,” and tried to make the point that Joe Biden’s accomplishment wasn’t just a matter of “aggressiveness,” but of a determination to leave no point unaddressed, while challenging the phony “moderate” framing the Romney-Ryan campaign is trying to use to re-present its agenda and particularly Ryan’s own budget proposal.

I don’t know how well I did, but Jon Chait put it well in a piece I just read:

The contrast with Obama lies not merely in their very — very, very — different energy levels. Obama approaches debates with the same intellectual method he uses in his books, his speeches, and his policy discussions. He instinctively tries to find common ground first, trying to work within the framework his opponent has established and acknowledge what he agrees with before delineating his disagreements.

Biden does not bother. He simply casts aside his opponent’s frame and works within his own. He did not ignore Ryan’s arguments, but he barreled over them like an enraged truck driver plowing over orange cones, before moving on to his own intellectual turf. Sometimes he barreled so fast his points were wrong or incomprehensible — most notably when he appeared to attribute the financial crisis to Bush-era fiscal profligacy, and seemed to set the bar for who should pay higher taxes at $1 million a year, not the $250,000 line Obama has labored to align his party behind. But it was a highly effective way to handle the smarmy evasions that Ryan predictably served up.

Biden met his audience at a gut level. Over and over he appealed to them to settle the debate by falling back on long-held prejudices about the two parties. Taxes? Biden set out to utter the phrase “middle class” as many times as he possible could, and to tie Romney and Ryan to the class interest of the very rich. On entitlements, he pulled out of the weeds and reminded voters that Democrats were the party of Social Security and Medicare – “Folks, follow your instincts on this one.” On defense, he repeatedly invoked the possibility that Romney would start another war, which is probably the only real way that foreign policy might enter the thinking of a low-information undecided voter. And three times Biden invoked Romney’s disparagement of the 47 percent, using it to frame the entire Romney-Ryan economic philosophy.

The point about Biden’s reminders of the two parties’ legacies was especially insightful. When Ryan dragged the debate into green-eyeshade land on the most sensitive points of his tax and budget proposals, Biden was basically saying: Do you really believe this guy is devoted to Medicare and doesn’t want to cut upper-income taxes? Even low-information voters are at least dimly aware that’s not credible, particularly after four years of talk about how the Tea Party movement has crafted a more conservative and militant GOP.

So when you hear anyone call Biden a crude bully in how he approached this debate, forget it. He knew exactly what he was doing, and while his performance was hardly perfect (it would have been nice had he found a way to convey that Ryan’s biggest fans love him for trying to decimate the entire New Deal/Great Society legacy), it got the job done.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.