By Charles Pierce, Esquire Magazine
For the second time in as many presidential elections, Joseph Biden got to debate a young, attractive Republican candidate who was demonstrably less qualified to to be president than I am to be chairman of the World Bank. Joseph Biden is a very lucky man. The Great Political Matchmaker in the Sky keeps handing him people who are trying – and failing – to fight above their weight class, and he keeps blowing through what can now legitimately be called the Bum of the Quadrennium Club.
There is a deeply held Beltway myth of Paul Ryan, Man of Big Ideas, and it dies hard. But, if there is a just god in the universe, on Thursday night, it died a bloody death, was hurled into a pit, doused with quicklime, buried without ceremony, and the ground above it salted and strewn with garlic so that it never rises again. On foreign policy, Ryan occasionally rose, gasping, to the level of obvious neophyte. (He was more lost in Afghanistan than the Russian army ever was.) On domestic policy, his alleged wheelhouse, he was vague, untruthful, and he walked right into a haymaker he should have seen coming from a mile off, when he started bloviating about Biden’s role in the “failed” stimulus program, only to have Biden slap him around with Ryan’s own requests for stimulus money for his home district back in Wisconsin. He also made it quite clear that a Romney-Ryan White House will do everything it can to eliminate a woman’s right to choose. This should make for some fine television commercials over the next few weeks.
(A brief note here about Martha Raddatz, who’s an old pal from our baby journo days in Boston. She did a fine job holding feet to the fire until her last three questions. She asked the two men to define their Catholicism only through the issue of abortion, which is not only insulting, but also limited a more interesting line of inquiry, given the open opposition of the Catholic bishops to the zombie-eyed granny-starving that is the hallmark of Ryan’s career. And that closing if-you-were-a-tree question was simply embarrassing.)
Moreover, the battering that Biden gave Ryan brought something into sharp relief that the Republican party has been fudging ever since Romney put the zombie-eyed granny-starver on the ticket – that, for his entire political career up to that point, on critical economic issues, Paul Ryan was an extremist even by the standards of the modern Republican party, which are considerably high indeed. He was for full privatization of Social Security. He was for the absolute elimination of the defined-benefit Medicare and Medicaid programs. Since being selected, it has become clear that the Romney people have forced him to soften these positions. (His stance on Medicare, for example, has evolved from Kill It Now to Arrange for Its Slow Death Later.) On Thursday night, Biden dragged out the old Paul Ryan – and, I would argue, the real Paul Ryan – and put him on display, and he made the new Paul Ryan own him. For one brief moment, he almost got Ryan to commit to Social Security privatization again. You could hear the screams from Romney headquarters all the way up the Charles to where I was watching.
Ryan got hit on the stimulus. He looked ridiculous trying to defend his refusal to specify what “loopholes” he and Romney plan to close to make the magic arithmetic in their tax plan work; Raddatz treed him completely on the mortgage-interest deduction, on the elimination of which neither Ryan nor his running mate will commit to a position. He looked even more ridiculous when Biden started pounding him on his career-long quest to end Medicare and throw old people onto the tender mercies of large insurance companies. Biden kept saying “vouchers” until Ryan, at one point, said, “It’s not a voucher. A voucher is a check you get in your mailbox.”
Wait. So if Paul Ryan gets his way, and Medicare as we know it gets eviscerated in favor of a pot full of offal on which Paul Ryan has slapped a label reading “Medicare,” and my inadequate health-insurance allowance comes by e-mail, then it’s not a “voucher” because it wasn’t a check I got in the mail? And this is the issue on which Paul Ryan is supposed to be Genius on roller skates. This was humiliating enough, but when they started talking about war and peace, specifically in Afghanistan, Ryan looked like a toddler trying to cross the Hindu Kush.
He stammered. He vanished into his syntax. He gave Biden the chance to ask him if he preferred that American soldiers carry the fighting in the worst parts of the country rather than Afghan troops, a devastating comeback for which Ryan had no answer. He kept rambling about maintaining the country’s “credibility” until, if you closed your eyes, he started to sound like Robert McNamara in 1965. And when Raddatz asked him, deftly, what would be worse, another war in the Middle East or Iran with a nuclear bomb, he leaped in precipitously with the latter, while about 75 percent of the country, including the two other people on stage with him, looked at Ryan as though he’d lost his mind. He did, however, demonstrate a certain talent for pronouncing long foreign words that his briefers had taught him on Tuesday. Also, he explained winter.
For years, Paul Ryan has been the shining champion of some really terrible ideas, and of a dystopian vision of the political commonwealth in which the poor starve and the elderly die ghastly, impoverished deaths, while all the essential elements of a permanent American oligarchy were put in place. This has garnered him loving notices from a lot of people who should have known better. The ideas he could explain were bad enough, but the profound ignorance he displayed on Thursday night on a number of important questions, including when and where the United States might wind up going to war next, and his blithe dismissal of any demand that he be specific about where he and his running mate are planning to take the country generally, was so positively terrifying that it calls into question Romney’s judgment for putting this unqualified greenhorn on the ticket at all. Joe Biden laughed at him? Of course, he did. The only other option was to hand him a participation ribbon and take him to Burger King for lunch.
You know what’s the difference between Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan?