WASHINGTON — What a difference a week makes. In the first presidential debate, President Obama let Mitt Romney’s attacks on him stand, and seemed disengaged. Vice President Joe Biden stayed in Rep. Paul Ryan’s face for the entirety of Thursday’s vice presidential debate. In the process, he forced Ryan, and by extension the Romney campaign, onto the defensive for a large part of the evening. Obama has a lot to be grateful for.
Last week, Romney repeated over and over that the president’s health care bill cut $716 billion. Obama didn’t push back much to explain that the cuts came from providers and insurance companies, not beneficiaries. This week, Ryan was forced again and again to answer for his voucher/”premium support” approach to Medicare, which Biden hammered at relentlessly.
Last week, Romney flatly denied he had proposed $5 trillion in tax cuts. This week, Ryan had to keep dodging the question of what middle-class deductions would have to be eliminated to pay for the tax cuts. The moderator, Martha Raddatz, who effectively challenged both candidates throughout the debate, at one point turned to Ryan and asked: “No specifics again?” The discussion revived an issue Obama badly needs in play.
And Ryan made a major mistake in defending his past support for privatizing Social Security. Last week, Obama made a mistake of his own when he said that his position and Romney’s on Social Security were similar, thereby closing off a matter that has always been a Democratic staple. The Republicans should have let things sit right there. Instead, Ryan brought the privatization issue to life. His standing his ground on his Social Security ideas (rather than simply saying that Romney had no plans to move in that direction) will allow the Democrats to add Social Security to Medicare in their arsenal of issues they hope to use to cut Republican margins among seniors.
Biden was hot, avuncular, occasionally sarcastic, and always engaged. He laughed a lot, and never let a point slip. I am certain that the cheers in Democratic living rooms around the country were as loud as the sighs of relief. That alone was vital to Obama. Demoralized Democrats themselves contributed to the story line of Obama’s failure in the first debate. The days of demoralization are over.