Friday, October 12, 2012

Ryan's Big Debut Was a Damp Squib, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Joe Biden

Unsurprisingly, I'm of the view that Biden won.

But what I found especially satisfying is how thoroughly Biden humiliated Ryan. Not in the sense of running circles around him argumentatively, but in the sense of actually humiliating him. The laughs, the constant interruptions, the muttered "Oh my god...," they all conveyed the same message: "This scrub congressman is not worth my time, or yours."

It resonates with informed liberals because most of us realize by now that this is the only correct response to the Paul Ryan Phenomenon. Ryan's a faux wonk: he's built his entire career by successfully communicating the sense that he's some sort of brilliant numbers man. The non-wonk media has been on occasion completely bamboozled by this charade. The last debate highlighted the problem rather well: nobody on TV is very interested in, much less capable of, checking the figures behind Ryan's (and now, Romney's) dubious claims, so simply countering his statistics with other, more accurate statistics won't work.

So Biden said the only thing that CAN be said in this situation: "You're lying." He said it over and over, with words and laughs and incredulous looks at the camera. Predictably, conservatives are freaking out, because Paul Ryan was their answer to progressives' utter dominance of the policy game. This was supposed to be a debate about The Numbers, which is to say it was supposed to be a debate in which Paul Ryan said some numbers, and conservatives, largely institutionally incapable of processing them on their own (because, remember, actual policy wonks are all on the other side of the aisle), get to reaffirm that this guy knows what he's talking about. How couldn't he? He sounds so smart! And of course that's what conservatives were hoping the rest of the country would see and think too, probably right down to Joe Biden himself.

But Biden, like every halfway intelligent progressive who knows a thing or two about policy (and I'm not saying Biden's some brilliant policy mind, but decades of congressional service are worth something in that department) knows that Paul Ryan's public image is borderline fraudulent. And for probably the first time in Ryan's career, he didn't hesitate to call him a fraud, to his face, on national TV. There was going to be no deference this time. If Ryan wanted to make his points, he was going to have to scrap for them, not just gussy them up in cargo cult policy talk.

To Ryan's credit, he fought back. Eventually. But Ryan's not much for scrapping. Down-in-the-dirt political brawling is toxic to his Libertarian Nerd persona, and really, the persona is all he's got, politics-wise. Biden threw mud on Ryan till Ryan dropped the Poindexter act and became Just Another Politician. In other words, till he became like Joe Biden himself, except without the experience or demeanor.

You could still be of the opinion that Ryan won, I guess. But I think it would be hard to watch the stammering kid at last night's debate, unable to find a statistic to counter Biden's drumbeat retort that the statistics are fake, and see the future of the Republican Party. Ryan was the GOP's secret weapon, and his superior intellect was supposed to run roughshod over Biden the clown. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, he was met with open dismissiveness. That's got to sting, for Ryan and for the party that's decided he's their leading light.

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