Biden and Ryan have some real ideas, but neither side has a plan to get us out of this economic mess.
Last night’s debate will be seen as an interlude: there were no knock-outs and both Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan did fine. Biden guffawed too heartedly and interrupted too much, Ryan looked strikingly like a puppy dog, the bases will be happy, and the five undecided people in America who will actually vote still can’t decide. So I want to comment on four points that occurred to me as I watched, a couple of which were reinforced by two columns this morning: Paul Krugman in New York Times and Matt Miller in the Washington Post.
First, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are both appealingly ordinary and normal – particularly compared to their principals. The right loves to portray Biden as a buffoon while the left sees Ryan sort of as an evil genius. But both of them have actually been committed advocates of honest to god real ideas throughout their careers. I’d enjoy a beer and a conversation with either of them, and I think there would be some actual give-and-take. I’m not sure that would be the case with either Barack or Mitt. Yet in today’s awful politics, there is not a chance in hell that Biden or Ryan would know each other, speak to each other, or work with each other.
Second, I am amazed at the ease with which Romney and Ryan have been able – have been allowed – to completely reposition themselves. I say this both as a partisan and with more clinical detachment as someone with a 45-year professional involvement in government and politics. You name the issue – taxes, entitlements, the middle class, abortion, their previous statements and records – Romney and Ryan have both, blithely and nonchalantly, taken off their old, worn, primary tried and true, crazy right wing of the Republican Party clothes and put on new tailor-made ones. It turns out that “etch-a-sketch” comment by Romney’s campaign spokesman a couple of months ago wasn’t a metaphor, it was a prediction. I stand in awe.
Third, I cannot understand, I will never understand, the complete absence on the part of either President Obama or Vice President Biden of a well developed, credible economic narrative and plan. This is a theme where I have on a couple of occasions disagreed with Paul Krugman. In a past column that he repeated a week or so ago, Paul Krugman has derided to an extreme degree the whole notion of “focus.” He characterized dwelling on the lack of “focus” as “intellectual cowardice,” saying, “the whole focus on ‘focus’ is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice – a way to criticize President Obama’s record without explaining what you would have done differently.” (I want to be clear that I am not implying in any way that Professor Krugman was referring to my blog. I cannot imagine that he read it.)
God forbid I say this about a Nobel Prize winner, but he was wrong then, and he’s wrong now. In a blog post I wrote in November of 2010, I did say exactly what I would have done, and it is exactly this lack of “focus,” of a well developed economic narrative and plan, that lies at the heart of President Obama’s campaign problem in this campaign. Joe Biden did his absolute best to fill this vacuum on the run, flying without a net, but his efforts did not substitute for a narrative and explanation developed over a whole term of talking to the American people. On the central issue, economic policy, that President Obama should never have had the slightest problem winning, his White House never built the story, and, boy, does its absence show and hurt today.
Finally, plans. Governor Romney has a “plan.” Congressman Ryan referred to this “plan” a number of times. Having a “plan,” no matter how completely empty, how completely devoid of substance it is, is better than not having one. I’ve read everything I could find about the Romney “plan” and there is no “there” there. It really does consist of saying that Governor Romney is for the Good and against the Bad. It was almost certainly created in five minutes by some speechwriter who was told the campaign needed a plan. I sure wish President Obama had had that speechwriter. Actually, I think one could develop quite a good plan, one that would actually be helpful in the real world as well as “campaign world.” But there isn’t one for President Obama; someone forgot.
Then on the topic of plans, Matt Miller makes a point that has continually jumped out at me: “In one sense the evening was impressive… On the other hand it was depressing, because the choice doesn’t include a party with a real plan to renew the country.”
Matt is correct. Neither the right nor the left has anything even remotely resembling a set of credible ideas that will get us out of the current mess and prepare us for both hugely changed economic circumstances and for what I believe are enormous opportunities. The right doesn’t seem to give a damn about inequality, mobility, or the social contract. The left is frozen in amber sometime around 1951. We could do, and we have to do a lot better, but we don’t. And because we don’t, we also don’t debate the politics of the future. We face huge changes as a nation. Great, transformative, world-changing politicians figure out how to help a nation cope with and handle change. They don’t screw around debating the validity of different numbers buried in different Medicare scenarios offered up by the Congressional Budget Office.
For those who like numbers, Nate Silver now gives President Obama a 66 percent chance of winning, with 289 electoral votes. RealClear Politics forced choice gives President Obama 292 electoral votes, but its last 6 poll average gives Romney an average 1.7 percent edge. InTrade gives President Obama a 63 percent chance and 282 electoral votes. The Iowa Market gives President Obama a 65 pwexwnr chance. In the last week, this election has become a cliff-hanger at both the national and state levels.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.