From the Right



A Tale of Two Debates

Michael Barone on

The debate featured "an extraordinarily aggressive, top-to-bottom attack," Politico wrote. "Over and over," one candidate's "tactic of choice was a gut-level punch." An "alpha-male display," Britain's left-wing Guardian headlined. The dominant candidate's style, CNN agreed, was "put your head down, charge forward, and don't stop."

No, those were not comments about last Thursday's earliest-in-history presidential debate. They were analyses made nearly 12 years ago after the Oct. 2012 vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and his much more aggressive opponent, Joe Biden.

Biden was then the incumbent vice president, determined to offset former President Barack Obama's indolent performance against Mitt Romney in the campaign's first presidential debate eight days before. His forceful, often mocking approach obscured his frequent misstatements and factual errors, but he reversed the Democratic ticket's downward plunge in the polls.

The contrast between Biden's 2012 and 2024 performances is glaring and a reminder of the ravages of age. But the two debates may also turn out to represent a turning point in the politics of, and the balance between, the two parties.

Going into the 2012 debate, Ryan at age 42 looked to me like the future of Republican politics.

As House budget chairman, he had gotten his colleagues to back his package of tax cuts and entitlement reforms while looking favorably on free trade and legalization of worthy illegal immigrants.

But the bombast and ridicule Biden inflicted on Ryan in the 2012 debate was a foretaste of the bombast and ridicule former President Donald Trump inflicted on multiple rivals in presidential primary debates in 2015 and '16 -- and which he inflicted on the (to many voters) surprisingly inert Biden last week.

As speaker of the House for 38 months from Oct. 2015, Ryan helped shape and pass Trump's 2017 tax cuts. But from the time he came down the Trump Tower escalator, Trump repudiated Ryan's stands on entitlements, trade and immigration. By now, almost all Republican officeholders have followed his lead.

Meanwhile, under Biden, Democrats moved sharply left on key issues, with an open borders policy, vast spending increases (on top of Trump's) sparking first-time-in-four-decades inflation, and ninth-month abortions. Trump hit Biden hard on such leftward lunges last week.

Will the 2024 debate in which Biden got shellshocked have a politics-altering effect like that of the 2012 debate in which he administered the shellshocking?

Of course we don't yet know the fallout of this year's debate. Thoughtful liberals like polling analyst Nate Silver, issues advocate Ezra Klein, and the gifted reporter Joe Klein are pleading that Biden withdraw and Democrats nominate someone stronger than his handpicked vice president, Kamala Harris.


But Democratic politicians have, as the younger Klein writes, a "collective action" problem: Retribution awaits the first dissenters from the public Biden-should-stay consensus. And as shown in Biden's 36 years of commuting from the Senate home to Delaware and his nearly 300 days there as president (according to CBS's Mark Knoller), he's never been close to Washington insiders. He has relied instead largely on family members, all of whom are reportedly strongly against withdrawal.

It's still possible he could win. Silver gives that a 31% likelihood, just above the 29% he gave Trump of winning going into the 2016 election. Things that likely tend to happen about one-third of the time.

But two-thirds of the time they don't. Trump was ahead going into the debate, initial polling suggests his lead has grown since, and he seems to have significant leads in states (including Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, which he lost in 2020) with 268 electoral votes, two short of a majority. Add Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin or Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District and he's president again. And probably with a Republican House and Republican Senate.

Democrats looking back on the last three decades brag that they've won five of the last eight presidential elections and have carried the popular vote in seven. A Trump presidency, if it were as successful with voters as the pre-COVID first Trump term was, could be followed by a second and possibly two-term Republican presidency.

Possible Trump VP nominees Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) or Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), or Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), whom he shoved aside this year, look to me at least as gifted at politics and policy as any Democrat I've seen mentioned as national nominees.

So one possible result of the Biden debate debacle could be 12 years of Republican popular vote victories and presidencies, something achieved only once since 1952, in Ronald Reagan's 1980s. That would represent success for the Republican politics of Trump and would surely, sooner or later, prompt a rethink of the Democratic politics of Biden.

Is that too much to extrapolate from a single debate? Probably. But it would be poetic justice if the devastation Biden inflicted on Ryan's ideas were inflicted in turn by Trump on Biden's.


Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, "Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders," is now available.

Copyright 2024 U.S. News and World Report. Distibuted by Creators Syndicate Inc.



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