Matt Miller - The Archives

Joe Biden and the 'seniors enigma'
The Washington Post, October 12, 2012

Watching Joe Biden hammer Paul Ryan on Medicare before looking into the camera and saying "listen to your instincts, folks," I couldn't help thinking—if Democrats have their classic case well in place on Medicare (and Social Security), why did the last Pew poll have Romney beating Obama 58-37 among seniors?

Several politically active Democrats I've talked to have been surprised if not stunned by this fact—most assume Democrats are winning seniors precisely because Paul Ryan put the GOP's head into the noose on Medicare. This conundrum (and readers and pollsters, please weigh in with theories) should shake Democrats' confidence that the things they think they know will shape this race's outcome.

In my view Biden did a very good job in Thursday night's vice presidential debate, but Ryan also did quite well for himself. Both men pleased their sides' partisans. I can't imagine anything in this debate will change the race, however, which means the momentum is still with Romney, and the onus still on Obama next Tuesday to alter the dynamic. The whole evening felt too much like a foreign policy seminar for my taste, presumably because that's Martha Raddatz's comfort zone. With seven minutes on Syria (that seemed like twenty) and not a word about how to improve schools, it looked more like an interview to become a member of the Council on Foreign Relations than an American presidential election.

It's hard not to like Biden when he's offering all those fun, pointed asides like "keep your eye on the Supreme Court" or "so now you're Jack Kennedy!" But watching him also served as a reminder of just how many opportunities Obama missed last week to draw sharp contrasts with Republican values. Biden hit it all: the 47%, Romney's low effective tax rate, the GOP's fetish for tax cuts for high earners, abortion rights, and plenty more. For my money, Biden didn't make nearly a clear enough case that Romney, even if he's now back to being an attractive Rockefeller Republican, would bring with him to power a phalanx of extreme conservatives - an argument that's essential for reaching still-persuadable voters. That task now falls to the president. Yet Biden personified the appealing "happy warrior," whereas Obama wouldn't deign to project either word in that phrase the other day.

In one sense the evening was impressive—two capable men hitting their talking points, which reflect real differences between the parties. On the other hand it was depressing, because the choice doesn't include a party with a real plan to renew the country.

Democrats think Republicans mistakenly cater to the wealthiest. Republicans think Obama's economy remains a disaster for millions of Americans. They're both right. Democrats won't let Republicans decimate Medicare (though when the GOP, like the president, plans to nearly double Medicare spending in the next decade, it's hard to know what that really means, at least anytime soon). Republicans have a "plan" to create the 12 million jobs economists think we're slated to see regardless as the recovery continues. Blah blah blah.

As always in our two party system, the race comes down to whose values you share—regardless of whether their proposals will make much of a dent in what actually ails us. I believe Democrats care more about the middle class and upward mobility. That doesn't mean I think their agenda will actually do anything to stop the middle class' erosion or to renew upward mobility. For this election, I suppose, good intentions may have to suffice.