By Debra J. Saunders
Over the next few days, news media and Republicans will share video snippets of Thursday night’s vice presidential debate. Voters will get an extra helping of Vice President Joe Biden chuckling, interrupting, laughing, mugging, smirking and otherwise behaving completely inappropriately. What Team Obama described as “just Joe being Joe” steadily devolved into Joe just being creepy.
A CNN poll showed Rep. Paul Ryan winning the debate within the margin of error. A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters reported that 50 percent thought Biden won; 31 percent thought Ryan won; and 19 percent judged the debate a tie. But I believe that after days of Biden’s mugging saturates the media, the chattering class will understand that this was a bad night for the Obama re-election campaign.
Americans are going to start asking themselves whether Biden is the guy they want to be a heartbeat away from staring down Russian President Vladimir Putin or Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
For his part, Ryan signaled what I think Mitt Romney will use as a big selling point during Tuesday’s presidential debate: President Barack Obama cannot work with others.
Democrats have tried to paint Ryan as an ideologue who cannot and will not cut deals, but Thursday night, Ryan was the voice of comity and reason. Here was the Ryan who fought hard for spending cuts and entitlement reforms but also voted to raise the debt ceiling in 2011.
When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, Ryan argued, he succeeded where Obama has failed. He didn’t “demonize” the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. “He didn’t demagogue them.” Romney worked across the aisle, found common ground and balanced the state budget.
Of course, Romney had to work with Democrats. They owned the State House. Obama, on the other hand, entered office with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. “Let’s not forget that they came in with one-party control,” Ryan reminded voters at the debate.
This left Obama with a choice: reach across the aisle because someday your majority may not hold or freeze out the other party Chicago-style. As Bob Woodward reported in his latest book, “The Price of Politics,” Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, advocated the latter approach — best described, starting with an expletive, as rolling the other side because you can.
That arrogant attitude led to excesses — unfunded pork barrel spending, huge deficits and a one-party health care measure — that invited a voter backlash. In November 2010, voters flipped 63 House seats and six Senate seats to the GOP.
On election night, Obama had to hustle to find (now House Speaker) John Boehner’s phone number so that he could make the obligatory good-sport phone call. So much for the Obama who promised to end hyper-partisanship in Washington and bring the country together.
Since Romney picked Ryan as his running mate, Democrats have tried to peg the GOP “young gun” as an inflexible ideologue who won’t work across the aisle. Robert Reich dismissed Ryan as a social Darwinist. Others likened Ryan to the most extreme elements of the tea party or dystopian author Ayn Rand.
On Thursday, voters saw a GOP leader who hasn’t been afraid to propose spending reforms, because he wants to fix what’s broken.
As for Biden, he could only repeat 5-year-old talking points. Republicans, he charged, talk about the Great Recession as if it fell out of the sky, when “it came from this man voting to put two wars on a credit card, to at the same time put a prescription drug benefit on the credit card.” Ditto the Bush tax cuts. “I was there. I voted against them.”
Ryan did not counter that Biden voted for the Iraq War resolution in 2002 and the Afghanistan War in 2001. Biden did vote against the Bush tax cuts and the bad Bush Medicare Part D plan in 2003, but the Obama administration extended both the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D without paying for them.
It would be nice to see Romney make that point when Obama recites the same litany of woes.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org