Week In Politics: Vice Presidential Debate

Robert Siegel talks to regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the vice presidential debate.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, good to see you both here.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about last night's vice presidential debate. According to preliminary figures from Neilson, more than 43 million people watched it. That wasn't close to the audience for the presidential candidates and it was fewer than watched the Sarah Palin/Joe Biden debate four years ago. But by any other standard, a very big audience. David Brooks, who do you think was helped and who was hurt?

BROOKS: People care. All my liberal friends were helped. It was good to see them coming off the ledge this morning. They feel a lot better. A little spring in their step. I guess I think both things are true. One, Democrats feel a lot better, morale is a lot better. Second, I do think independents would have been offended by Biden's performance.

Biden was a star. He does attract all the attention. But, you know, partisanship is sort of barbarizing and if I treated E.J. the way Joe Biden acted last night, you would throw me out of the studio.

DIONNE: What do you mean?

BROOKS: Interruptions, smirking, condescension. And so, people...

SIEGEL: (Unintelligible) his demeanor or what he had to say?

BROOKS: Both. I mean, the demeanor is the substance because we're facing a fiscal cliff. We're facing contradictory challenges like holding the debt while boosting growth. You've got to have people in government who can listen to other people, who can possibly cut deals. And Biden's behavior was not the behavior of someone who can actually cut a deal.

SIEGEL: E.J., what did you think?

DIONNE: In as civil and polite a way as I can, I think David's completely wrong in reading this debate that way because, yes, Joe Biden deserves a humanitarian award for stopping so many Democrats from committing suicide. The mood was terrible. And he ended the demoralization among Democrats, which was a huge deal all by itself, which I think we agree on.

Where we disagree is who achieved what needed to be achieved in this debate. And I think it's very clear that Joe Biden helped Barack Obama because he pressed Ryan on the issues that Romney should have been pressed on. Ryan couldn't say what deductions they would have to get rid of to pay for their tax plan.

Biden planted serious doubts about the Romney/Ryan Medicare plan and I don't think Ryan dispelled them. Ryan made a couple of mistakes. It could be chalked up to principle, where he defended his Social Security privatization ideas, which is not an issue that Romney wanted on the table at all. And his answer on abortion, which again reflected Ryan's own view, directly contradicted Romney's efforts to soften his position on that issue again.

And I think we heard it in the earlier pieces. Democrats came out of the debate talking about the issues central to the campaign - the economy, taxes, the Medicare and so on. Republicans are bringing up Benghazi, which surely is important, it's a tragic, awful thing that happened, but it will not be a voting issue.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about - David, did you want to remark on that first?

BROOKS: I do have some responses to EJ's malarkey-ridden answer. You know, I agree with two things.

DIONNE: Let's just stop, David.

BROOKS: First, Benghazi, I have no idea why Mitt Romney's talking about Benghazi. I think it's a tragedy what's happened there, but it's not central. Second, I do agree that they - Ryan looked bad on the tax issue. The numbers don't add up and I do think they exploited that. But so much of the debate was on health care - I mean, was on foreign policy.

I really didn't think they got to jobs. They barely got to Medicare. And then, the final thing to be said is it was mostly about Romney/Ryan's policy plans, exposing, I think, still the core weakness of the Democratic campaign. They don't have many big ideas of their own, that to be attacked or defended.

SIEGEL: I'd like to pursue this thing about Benghazi a little bit, which was what moderator Martha Raddatz put to the vice presidential candidates. Last night, she asked Joe Biden about that. Biden said that what the administration said about what happened in Libya is what they heard from the intelligence community.

And as for the claims that the mission in Libya had wanted more security there, he said this.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, we weren't told they wanted more security again. We did now know they wanted more security again. And by the way, at the time we were told exactly, we said exactly what the intelligence community told us that they knew. That was the assessment.

And as the intelligence community changed their view, we made it clear they changed their view. That's why I said we will get to the bottom of this.

SIEGEL: Today, as we heard from Ari Shapiro, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said that Biden was speaking for himself and for the president, implying that State Department personnel, security personnel, might have heard a request for more security, but they had not.

David's already said this is not going to be a voting issue. The Republicans, not just Governor Romney and Representative Ryan, but Republicans in the House, seem to think it is. They seem to think it's a matter of either a lack of preparedness or lack of candor or not taking the threat of terrorism seriously.

DIONNE: I think one of the problems Mitt Romney has had in this campaign up to now is that the polls suggest that President Obama has a big lead on foreign policy. Majorities are happy we got out of Iraq. They're happy we're moving out of Afghanistan. A lot of people would like to move out sooner. And obviously, they're happy that Osama bin Laden was killed.

And so I think it's not surprising that Republicans are trying to put a dent in Obama's record here, and this was a big enough event, it's not as if it's an illegitimate thing to talk about. But I think it is very hard for them to make the case that Biden knew what he didn't know. It does appear that this request to the State Department did not get up to the president. That's certainly plausible because no one foresaw what was going to happen.

And Biden did point out that Congress cut the security budget by $300 million, which is fair for us to think about because we probably don't have a big enough State Department budget as it is.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: I guess I thought it was - you know, it is kind of amazing the administration goes out and tells a story, which turns out to be false. I thought it was basically 70 percent an intelligence failure, which happened to be politically convenient for the administration, and we've seen this story before a few times.

And so I thought they should have been a little more skeptical, but I really don't think you can blame them totally for seizing on what was easily the most politically salable storyline that they could have. But it was told to them by the intelligence agencies.

SIEGEL: One other item - and we won't have perhaps enough time to deal with it - but Senator Schumer, Charles Schumer of New York, gave a speech about taxes on Tuesday, which differed from what we thought all the bipartisan groups in the Senate were working on, kind of a 1986 version, lowering of rates. Is Chuck Schumer, EJ, is he off on his own or is he telling us something about what the administration intends to do?

DIONNE: No, I think this was a very important speech and he was not off on his own. I think this was a great emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Schumer was correct to say, I think, that if you are going to go through all the trouble of tax reform, why then use the money to cut the tax rates of the wealthy, which is essentially what would happen in a rate-cutting tax reform, when you need it to close the deficit.

And I have also - and David and I have disagreed on this all year, I'm very skeptical you can raise a lot of money out of tax reform at this moment because we don't want to mess with housing or health care or state and local taxes. I think this'll help the process.

SIEGEL: But what does it say, David, about the possibility of having a bipartisan agreement that brings us back to the fiscal cliff?

BROOKS: I'm amazed Obama jumped on this bandwagon because in private the people in the administration are not thrilled about this idea. If you raise money, you love tax loopholes. The thing that Schumer left out, and I thought it was a very smart speech, the thing he left out was the effect on growth of all these perverse incentives tucked into the system. It's tremendously wasteful. And that's the thing he didn't put in there.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of the New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thanks to both of you for talking politics once again.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Good to be with you.

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