The spectacle of the Democratic television networks and newspapers straining to make Joe Biden the Paul Revere of the flagging Obama campaign is one of the more entertaining sideshows of American politics since Jimmy Carter’s encounter with the dangerous swimming rabbit in the Everglades. One need seek no further than this desperate recruitment of the man my esteemed colleague Jonah Goldberg accurately described here about nine months ago as having a hot-air balloon for a brain, for so vital a service, to see how shaken the regime is by the debacle of the first debate between the presidential candidates. The endless patter of whether the debates mattered at all seems to have been answered by Governor Romney’s rise from a two-to-six-point overall deficit to a uniform one-to-two-point lead in the polls, even allowing for the delay in the traditionally Democratic polls, which went as silent as Jodie Foster’s lambs in the five days following the showdown in Denver.
Showing unsuspected powers of improvisation, the Democrats and their media echo chamber, who had been disparaging Paul Ryan as a robotic Inquisitionist and advocate of negative taxation for rich people, suddenly portrayed him as the personification of the computer — a misguided but inexhaustible storehouse of facts, a giant in debate, against whose siege guns the worthy journeyman Joe Biden would, like General McAuliffe at Bastogne, be armed only with pluck and truth. This is, indeed and lest we could forget, the same Joe Biden who plagiarized from a campaign spiel by Neil Kinnock (the most forgettable leader in the entire history of the British Labour party), and, among other exaltations of mind, taste, and loyal comradeship, referred to his chief as the only respectable and presentable African-American politician in decades.
This aging David, armed only with the virtue of caring and connection to the common people (whom, he told us four years ago, he consulted every Saturday in a diner in Wilmington that had in fact been closed for many years), hobbling into battle against the young Goliath, would fight to the last breath in defense of human compassion against the cold steel of the Republican soak-the-poor calculating machine. The future of America as a land where the little people might aspire to more than serfdom was at stake. Perceptive conservative commentators like Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal warned of the setup. The script was inexorable. Biden avoided howlers, Ryan avoided any appearance of dogmatism or failure to connect with ordinary people, and the Democratic media conceded that Ryan had not self-immolated but claimed a moral victory. Unlike the quietism of the Democratic polls after the first debate, the propagators of Bidenmania were ready this time with a spate of post-debate unscientific polls showing a smashing breakthrough for their man. It won’t fly.
On the issues, Ryan won on the budget; of course it has been possible to lower taxes on the middle class and raise revenues simultaneously, and of course John F. Kennedy’s measure, passed by Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan’s, accomplished this. Biden’s flippant attempt to replicate Lloyd Bentsen’s crack at Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) didn’t cut it and wasn’t appropriate. (Neither was Bentsen’s, but it worked.) On Afghanistan, Biden held the fort well enough about withdrawing in 2014, but Ryan made his point that there was no reason to disincentivize the Taliban from negotiating by broadcasting complete American withdrawal so far in advance.
The moderator moved briskly on to abortion, which should not be an issue in a presidential election at all, and hung it on what she represented as the history-making fact that both vice-presidential candidates are Roman Catholics, as if the adherents to that faith were the only people in the United States who have any reservations about abortion. Biden even trotted out a Latin phrase as he professed agreement with his Church’s position that life begins, and must be protected, at conception, but unctuously announced that he was not trying to impose that view on equally strong believers in other definitions of the beginning and sanctity of life. Ryan took the same view and denied a desire to impose anything on anyone, but voted his conscience, and successfully defended Romney and himself from Biden’s attempt to paint them as implacable adversaries of abortion in any circumstances. It is one thing for Biden not to seek to impose his views on others and something else for him to support, as he has, views directly contrary to those he espouses. And it is not a version of Roman Catholicism most of his co-religionists would recognize for him to support forcing the Roman Catholic Church to pay for the abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures desired by students and employees of Roman Catholic–affiliated organizations.