The Art of the Budget Deal

The good news is that President Donald and the Republican and Democratic leaders have reached a deal, expected to be voted on and signed by the end of the week, which will avert a governmental default and the economic cataclysm that would surely follow. The bad news is that deal adds another couple trillion dollars to a national debt that sooner or later will be just as catastrophic.
For now, though, no one seems to care. The Democrats remain the party of big government, and realize that for the two years of the budget deal they are unlikely to get the big tax increases they want to address the deficit, and the agreement gives them a few hundred billion dollars more to spread around to their voters. The Republicans are no longer the party of fiscal responsibility but rather the party of Trump, the self-proclaimed “king of debt,” who told reporters on Monday that “We are, I think, doing very well on debt, if you look at debt limit, however you want to define that, but we’re doing very well on that and I think we’re doing well on a budget.”
We’ll leave it to Trump’s die-hard supporters to explain exactly what the heck that means, as they seem to speak his language better than we do, but the gist of it seems to be that he’s quite comfortable about another couple of years of trillion dollar deficits, and maybe four more after that if he gets reelected. He and his die-hard supporters will probably revert to the old-fashioned Republican outrage about fiscal irresponsibility as soon as another Democrat occupies the White House, but for now they’ll talk about the great deal he got.
The Democrats agreed to another big hike in defense spending, and Trump told reporters “Very important we take care of our military, our military was depleted and in the past two-and-a-half years we’ve undepleted it, okay, to put it mildly,” adding another Trump neologism to the language at no cost to the taxpayer. There’s no money for the big beautiful border wall that Trump the Mexicans pay for, but neither is there anything to prevent Trump from diverting funds from the military budget to build a mile or two. The Democratic leaders also gave oral assurances they wouldn’t complicate future budget negotiations with with any “riders” regarding abortion or other controversial issues, although it’s not clear how Trump will hold them to that.
The deal does allow a few hundred billion dollars more of discretionary spending, but for at least two years and maybe six that Democrats won’t have much say in how it’s spent, so a lot of Democratic congress members are publicly fuming, especially those newcomers that Trump has lately been urging to back where they came from.
The last of the old-school Republicans who really believed all that talk about limited government and fiscal responsibility and the looming were also disgruntled, with the president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget saying “It may end up being the worst budget agreement in our nation’s history.”
Despite all the grumbling on both sides of the aisle we expect the deal will be sealed by week’s end, when Congress takes it annual summer vacation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer retain a fairly tight rein on their caucus, hardly anyone in the Republican party dales challenge Trump on anything, the entire political class seems to realize that few of us still care about about the looming debt catastrophe, and absolutely no believes that anyone in Washington, D.C., can come up with solution before vacation time.
The deal at least kicks the can of crisis a bit further down the road, and no one’s likely to have to run for reelection a year from next November explaining what they did the the global economic Armageddon happened, and they can all hope they’ll be dead or retired with a sufficient stash of gold and guns and canned food when the reckoning does come.
Addressing America’s debt will require tough talk and harsh medicine for the American people. The Democrats will have to acknowledge that their utopian dreams are for now too expensive, the Republicans will probably have to forgo another round of their beloved tax cuts, and both parties will have make unpopular changes in such popular programs as Social Security and Medicare and even our recently undepleted military. That kind of political courage is scarce these days in either party, though, and far scarcer than the deficit dollars the Fed will keep printing.

— Bud Norman

Turning Right on Sesame Street

There’s a lot in the news lately other than the latest federal budget proposals, and of course there’s plenty further news within that proposed $3.6 trillion of spending that’s currently up for debate, but somehow the relatively mere pittance of $454 million per annum for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is once again getting column inches and air time. President Donald Trump wants to end the spending altogether, the relatively small but inordinately influential fans of public broadcasting are screaming foul, and it all seems slightly familiar yet somehow different.
Suspicious sorts of conservatives such as ourselves have been leery of government-subsidized media from the get-go back in the Great Society days of the ’60s, we’ve always wondered why the equally paranoid liberals didn’t share our concerns about it, and nothing that has happened since had changed our views on the matter. The arguments against allowing the government to pay for air time are all the more compelling in the age of Trump, as far as our suspicious conservative souls are concerned, and for the life of us we can’t understand why any liberal isn’t at long last seeing the light.
We’re old enough that our first exposure to educational programming for the kiddies was back in the days of the ad-supported Captain Kangaroo, though, and we understand that the subsequent generations that grew up learning the alphabet and other lessons from the Public Broadcasting System’s “Sesame Street” clearly have a different perspective. Our liberal friends of all ages also prefer the classical music and pretentious jazz and those soothing voices and sensitively wrought opinions of National Public Radio to the shrilly shrieked vitriol on the right wing radio talk shows with all the ads for gold sellers and survival food and promised relief from the Internal Revenue Service, and lately we can’t argue much with the preference, even if we’re sticking to old garage rock cassette tapes and the old folks’ AM station with the Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee tunes during our drives around town. There’s also no denying that a mere $454 million is too small a fraction of a $36 trillion budget for us to bother try to calculate, and that somewhere along the line “Sesame Street” might have taught some poor kids the alphabet and that sometimes classical music is the perfect thing for a drive around town, and we don’t doubt that Trump might just be settling a longstanding score with “Sesame Street,” which has apparently been taunting him since he was a minor New York tabloid celebrity, but we’re still comfortable with the draconian budget cut.
All the old arguments still apply, though, especially around here. Public broadcasting was touted as a subsidy to those poor folks who couldn’t afford the high-priced high-brow fare on cable, but our rabbit ears don’t get the local PBS affiliate and nobody we know all over this town can get it, and although the NPR affiliate at the local college station comes through loud and clear it doesn’t seem to be seeking out a low-income audience. Even such low-lifes as ourselves occasionally enjoy the classical music offerings that admittedly can’t be found elsewhere, but we’d happily endure the infrequent ad for contingency fee lawyers to those interminable fund-raising drives and all that Peter, Paul and Mary music. Free market purists assume there will always be a commercial market for sensitively wrought opinions broadcast in soothing voices, especially in the age of Trump, and given that the “Sesame Street” brand and all its toys and bed sheets and coloring books probably out-earns the Trump brand our liberal friends have nothing to free from a true laissez-faire media.
Back in the pre-cable days the local PBS affiliate used to come through to our suburban house with episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which we are still grateful for, and our friends affluent to still have cable talk of some good high-brow shows on PBS, but we’re not sure it warrants even a mere $454 million dollars. Getting the budget into a sustainable range will require some tinkering with the popular entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, which the liberals who love public broadcasting all consider sacrosanct and even Trump doesn’t dare to touch, so we’ll not worry much about this particular line item no matter how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

Another Vacation From History

Why did Nero fiddle as Rome burned? Because golf had not yet been invented.
That’s about the best joke we can come up with in these glum days of the republic, and of course it was inspired by President Barack Obama’s latest vacation. We don’t mean to begrudge the poor fellow some rest and relaxation, as he has a lot of responsibilities to dodge, but now does seem an odd to be heading off to the links. Not that we think it would do any good for him to be hanging around the White House during the ongoing crises, but even such supportive press pundits as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank are thinking it makes for “bad optics,” as they say in the politics biz, and it leaves him wide open to cheap shots from less sympathetic pundits such as ourselves.
At least he was on the job right up to the very moment his helicopter whisked him away, dodging responsibility at a news conference for the current crucifixions-and-everything mess in Iraq. One of the reporters had the lese-majeste to ask if the current slaughter being inflicted on that unfortunate nation by the Islamic State in Levant gang that the president had recently dismissed as a “jayvee team” of terrorists had caused him to reconsider his decision in 2011 to remove all the American troops that had successfully been keeping a sort of peace there. “What I find it interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up,’ he replied, “as if this was my decision.”
We find it interesting that the president finds it interesting such an obvious question keeps coming up, and quite surprising that he would now claim it wasn’t his decision to bug out of the country. He ran for election on promise to do so, ran for re-election on the boast that he had kept that promise, and had cited the stable and peaceable Iraq that he had left behind as one of his administration’s greatest achievement. There was also some talk about the status of forces agreement that his predecessor had negotiated, although that always went unmentioned when he was boasting about the withdrawal, and some more talk about the impossibility of negotiating a new treaty that might have averted the present catastrophe, but it won’t make much difference except to the more dedicated people who voted for him because of the decision he now disavows.
Those die-hard fans will happily credit Obama with the decision to pull all of America’s troops from Iraq and simultaneously blame his predecessor for the catastrophic consequences, as is their wont. Back when the Solyndra company opened its shiny new factory Obama was eager to credit it to his stimulus bill, when it went belly-up he blamed it on a Bush-era program, and at both points his loyal fans nodded in agreement. The president tells the die-hard environmentalists that he’s fighting domestic coal and oil production tooth-and-nail, tells the rest of the country that he’s presided over an energy boom, and gets the same hearty applause on both occasions. He rails against the stingy Republican nay-sayers who won’t fund his transformative and expensive agenda, boasts about he’s halved the budget deficit since they took over from a rubber-stamp Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and can count on none of his fans getting suspicious. Until recently he could also count on the major media to politely ignore the contradictions. He can even rail against income inequality in between opulent vacations on fashionable Martha’s Vineyard and golfs on a famed course with well-heeled ex-jocks without the utter hypocrisy being highlighted on the late night comedy shows.
None of this does any does any good for the Christians or Yazidis ofr the less fruitcake varieties of Muslims who have lately been slaughtered in the most archaic ways by that jayvee team that the president had laughingly dismissed as nothing to worry about, and at this point we don’t think it will do any better for the Democratic candidates trying to win congressional seats in the upcoming mid-term elections. The press is starting to notice that the world is unraveling from a lack of American leadership, not just in Iraq but in Syria and Libya and Gaza and Ukraine and the South China sea, and and that 99 percent that the president stands for is starting to notice that they’re not invited.

— Bud Norman

A Presidential Wish List

One of the non-stories we most look forward to every year is the ceremonial unveiling of President Barack Obama’s annual budget proposal. None of Obama’s budget proposals have ever won even a single vote in Congress, and this one also isn’t likely to do any damage, but it’s always instructive to see what’s on the president’s wish list.
This year’s yearnings were trotted out Tuesday at a Washington elementary school, presumably because the tykes there would be more likely to take them seriously than any adult, and they are predictably expensive. The plan calls for spending $3.9 trillion next year, adds an extra $791 billion of spending over the next ten years, and winds up ballooning the national debt from the current $17 trillion-something to a nice round $25 trillion by 2024. Just the interest payments on all that debt would amount to $812 billion a year, making the hopelessly optimistic assumption that rates don’t rise, as well as assuming Obama’s less-than-rosy prediction of 2.6 percent annual growth in the economy, and the sum far exceeds planned defense spending but will pay for the lion’s share of China’s military.
Such profligacy “enables us to meet our obligations to future generations without a mountain of debt,” the president said with a straight face. Even the most innumerate urchin at an elementary school in the District of Columbia will immediately wonder how high debt has to be pile before it is considered mountainous, but the wizened reporters at the event were mostly unfazed by the statement. The Washington Post gave the proposal a more respectful hearing, noting approvingly that it “also aims to tame the national debt by raising taxes on the rich, squeezing payments to health-care providers and overhauling immigration laws.” Politely setting aside the sorry history of soaking the rich, the unsettling likelihood that squeezing payments to health-care providers will result in less health care being provided, and the inevitable economic and social costs of overhauling immigration laws along the lines Obama would prefer, the Post preferred to spend several paragraphs on the proposal’s supposed benefits to pre-school programs and the National Institutes of Health and climate research, “much of it aimed at providing support to a struggling middle class.”
There is reason to hope that the Congress won’t be so gullible. The most weak-kneed of the Republicans won’t dare go along with such nonsense, and even the safely-seated Democrats have yet to cast for such fiscal insanity. The recent budget agreements have been disagreeable to conservative tastes, to the point that they’ve provoked a much-needed insurgency within the Republican party, but at least they’re a darned sight better than what the president is wishing for.

— Bud Norman

Gaining From a Bad Deal

Good policy is good politics, according to an old saying, and like most old sayings it is often but not always true. The congressional Republican’s cowardly capitulation to a “clean” debt ceiling deal on Wednesday might prove one of the frequent exceptions to the rule.
No real Republican would argue that the deal isn’t disastrously bad policy. The legislation basically hands a blank check to the most profligate president in history, guaranteeing the nation’s debt will rise to a staggering $17.2 trillion just after November’s mid-term elections, and achieves nothing in the way of much needed spending cuts or any other curbs on a government rapidly and clumsily expanding into every niche of American life. Although the party leadership and the minority of Republican congressman who followed them argue will that the deal guarantees the full faith and credit of the federal government, an increasingly restive conservative base will not be convinced that adding yet another $512 billion dollars of debt over the next few months is the most fiscally responsible course of action.
Nor can the Republicans point to any immediate political advantages gained from the deal. Indeed, the more prominent media are gleefully quoting the Democrats’ gloating that the deal represents a total defeat for the Republicans in general and their more rock-ribbed Tea Party constituents in particular. House Speaker John Boehner, whose hold on the house speakership grows more tenuous with each passing offense to the party’s most essential voters, couldn’t even win the inclusion of an amendment to rescind some previous unpopular budget cuts to veterans’ benefits that the Democrats probably could have been shamed into accepting. As the most outspoken opponent of the deal and the only Republican to attempt a filibuster Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was rewarded for his noble efforts by some of the most sneeringly disdainful press coverage of his already controversial career, and if the party leadership and its timid followers expected to be lauded by the pundits for their non-partisan willingness to compromise they have been sorely disappointed.
On the other hand, at least the Republicans aren’t being pilloried for their strident partisanship and stubborn refusal to compromise. That’s what happened every other time the Republicans tried to use the debt ceiling as leverage for sensible reforms and essential spending restraint, with the damage done to the party’s popularity evident in all the subsequent opinion polls, and we will generously assume that the Republican leadership was merely trying to avoid yet another hit. Those talk radio hosts shrieking “damn the opinion polls, full steam ahead” are quite right to argue the public should be grateful for the Republicans’ efforts, that government shutdowns are a minor inconvenience at worst and a welcome break from bureaucratic meddling at best, that a federal default would not occur in any case, and that the eventual consequences of all that debt far outweigh any damage done by a protracted political squabble, but they are wrong to assume that an electoral majority of the country can be made to understand any of it.
A crucial percentage of voters pay too little attention to politics to hear these arguments, and even if the arguments were to somehow sneak into the news accounts that occasionally interrupt the average uninformed American’s day he would likely be unmoved. Government shutdowns always sound scary when the news anchors say it, the laws and constitutional requirements precluding default are as a confounding as the economic concepts involved, and the public has become inured to warnings about it since the Democrats started squawking about it back in the Reagan days. When the debt it called due and the inevitable economic calamity occurs it will be big news, but at the moment the weather is a far more pressing matter for the average American.
Unless the bottom falls out before November, the Republicans’ cowardly capitulation could provide them with a slight advantage in the mid-term elections. By that time the deal will be largely forgotten even by the talk radio hosts, who are already shrieking less loudly than after other Republican leadership outrages, and the majority of Republican congressman who opposed the deal will be able to remind their conservative voters that they at least voted “no.” The Democrats won’t have another unpopular showdown to blame on the Republicans, and they’ll still be remembered as the party that promised you could keep your health care plan if you liked it and then cancelled the policy and forced you to pay more money for one covering things you don’t want or need. To the extent that America’s dire fiscal situation is an election issue, even the most cowardly capitulators in the party can claim that they were forced to bankrupt the country by the Democrats.

— Bud Norman

Pursuing a Dream

Those prolific folks at the Congressional Budget Office have written up yet another installment in their annual “Budget and Economic Outlook” series, and it might be their best work yet. That’s high praise, given how the president used to gush about the non-partisan brilliance of these eyeshade-wearing savants of the bureaucracy, but their latest look at Obamacare really is quite a read.
In a taut 175 pages of impeccable public policy prose, including the numerous charts and tables and citations of sources and such, the report lays out all the sorry facts about the nation’s fiscal health. This has been a recurring theme of the series for so long now that it’s become too boring to prompt comment, but the parts about Obamacare offer an intriguing if somewhat predictable plot twist. To hear the CBO boys tell it, the law isn’t working out well.
The report projects that the law will result in the loss of 2.5 million full-time equivalent jobs in the next decade, leave 31 million people still without health insurance but paying for the privilege, add $1.4 trillion to the federal deficit, cause millions of Americans to lose the health insurance plans that they liked, and wind up costing the average American money out of his paycheck. Given that the law’s eponymous president repeatedly promised that it would spur economic activity, insure everyone, wouldn’t add a single dime to the deficit, anyone who liked his health insurance plan could keep it, and the average American would wind up with an extra $2,500 in his paycheck, it seems fair to say that things aren’t going as intended.
Back when the president was making such preposterous promises on behalf of Obamacare he had CBO reports to back them up, all based on the equally preposterous presumptions the agency was forced to proceed from, which is probably why he used to gush about its non-partisan brilliance. The latest report is based on assumptions more closely resembling reality, and is therefore less to the president’s liking, but all that past praise forced the White House to carefully interpret rather haughtily dismiss the CBO’s conclusion.
By far the most entertaining portion of White House spokesman Jay Carney’s juggling act was his insistence that the 2.5 million lost jobs is proof the law’s unexpected success. After correctly noting that the report does not blame the job losses on disincentives for employers to provide jobs, and without noting that it also said such an effect might well occur when the delayed employer-mandate at last kicks in after the mid-term elections, Carney seemed proud that CBO found the initial job losses would result from Obamacare’s disincentives for employees to accept low-wage jobs rather than relinquish their health care subsidies and other benefits. As Carney thus explains it, those 2.5 million lost jobs mean “Americans would no longer be trapped in a job just to provide coverage for their families, and would have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
Any Americans who don’t dream of a life of care-free welfare dependency probably wouldn’t put it in such poetic terms, but at this point they likely comprise only a small share of the Democratic votership. It remains to be seen how the economy will fare under the guidance of an administration that takes such pride in lost jobs, and we’ll be looking forward to next year’s installment in the “Budget and Economic Outlook” to find out.

— Bud Norman

No Accounting for Government

The sharp-eyed fellows at the site have noticed something peculiar among the veritable mountains of data that the federal government routinely generates. Apparently, the United State’s national debt has been precisely $16,699,396,000,000 for the past month.
This is hard to account for, as one would expect that a debt to go up or down by at least some miniscule amount over the course of 31 days, and in the case of a government that ran a $98 billion deficit during the same period of time it would be expected to go up by approximately $98 billion, but government accountants seem to have a knack for hard accounting. Their efforts have somehow kept the debt stuck just $25 million below the legal debt limit, conveniently preventing the government from being in violation of its own laws, and that is rather precise work. After all, $25 million is a just a tick or two on the national debt clock, a relatively piddling sum that the president can blow through in just a few vacation days, so they’re cutting it awfully close.
Such a neat trick is the result of “extraordinary measures,” according to a letter sent by Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew to Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, which is appended by several pages of jargon-laden prose explaining how the illusion is achieved. The Secretary further explained that the statutory debt limit has been suspended by yet another law, and that the measures his department is employing to keep the debt under control are not at all extraordinary, being “the same one that have been used in previous debt limit impasses,” so the public is advised not to worry about anything. Lew also added some pointed criticism of the House budget proposal, threw in a pitch for the president’s plan, and warned that any attempt to further limit the debt will endanger the full faith and credit of the country.
Some might doubt the veracity of, as the “c” stands for conservative, and perhaps that explains the lack of coverage elsewhere. The story contains links to corroborating Treasury Department documents, however, and the “dot gov” on the web address should satisfy the skeptics. Reporter Terence P. Jeffrey seems to be imply that’s there something fishy about the methods that have kept national debt just below its legal limit, but we’re not such suspicious sorts and are willing to accept the possibility that the unchanging debt is just a happy coincidence of revenues and expenditures evening out to the exact penny for an entire month. An extraordinary coincidence, as the Treasury Secretary might say, but altogether innocent.

— Bud Norman

High Dudgeon and Higher Ceilings

President Barack Obama was in high dudgeon when discussing the upcoming debt ceiling negotiations with the House Republicans during Monday’s rare news conference. High dudgeon is Obama’s default rhetorical position, of course, but when it comes to his dealings with House Republicans nobody’s dudgeon goes higher.
Obama started things off by boasting of the $1.4 trillion in spending cuts that he has signed into law over the past two years, and touting his plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade. All those spending cuts haven’t prevented the federal budget from increasing in size over the past two years, and all of the budget proposals that he has gotten around to submitting entail a decade of unprecedented deficits, but given how much he would have preferred to spend perhaps he’s entitled to some credit for a relative stinginess. We note that he’s counting the $2.5 trillion of savings achieved by not fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars past this year, so we suggest he also add in the several trillion dollars we’ve no doubt saved by now from not fighting the Spanish-American War past 1898 and declare the nation’s accounts square.
The president’s plan involves a lot a lot of actual tax increases along with those mythical spending decreases, which the president proudly describes as a “balanced approach,” and he was quick to remind the press that he won re-election with this very appealing-sounding slogan. Although the president spoke loftily of a “balanced way where everyone pulls their weight, everyone does their part,” he also made clear that he was still talking about tax increases only on the hated rich and evil corporations, so it must be conceded that he is remaining true to his campaign promises if not economic reality. Trying to reduce the deficit without massive tax hikes, Obama seemed annoyed to explain, is “not a recipe for growth.”
Making a fair assumption that most Americans had never heard of a “debt ceiling” until it became an inescapable news story during his unpleasant squabble with the crazy Republicans a couple of years ago, Obama helpfully explained the issue as simply a matter of “paying America’s bills.” Apparently those bills were all racked up by spendthrift Republicans despite Obama’s penny-pinching objections, because he was clearly quite offended that those Republicans would now try to run out on the check. If the nation does not go further into debt, Obama said, it risks becoming a “deadbeat nation.” Refusing to allow the government to go just a couple more trillion dollars into the hole, Obama continued, would therefore be the height of fiscal irresponsibility. He seemed quite vexed that anyone would dispute him on that point. Indeed, the president could only conceive of the most sadistic motives for wanting to accumulate national debt at a slower pace.
“But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction,” Obama said. “They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research.”
The president went on to remind the press “That view was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign,” and in retrospect it doesn’t seem surprising that Romney’s anti-old people and pro-starvation platform wasn’t the big winner we Republicans had hoped for. Obama might have mentioned that those meals for the poor kids are all the more important since poverty has increased over the past four years, and that government medical research will be all the more crucial once the Obamacare taxes start discouraging the private efforts that have traditionally yielded the most important breakthroughs, but he apparently he didn’t want to overemphasize the point.
At least the president didn’t repeat his previous claims that the Republicans also want dirty air and water, and for autistic children to fend for themselves, and for various other Dickensian degradations to be visited upon the American people, but he appeared quite miffed nonetheless. It should make for an interesting sit-down with the Republican leadership, and we suspect that this unpleasant squabble will be just as inescapable as the last.

— Bud Norman

Veep, Veep

Joe Biden didn’t say anything memorably laugh-out-loud stupid in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, which will likely suffice for the Obama administration’s many media cheerleaders to declare him a runaway victor, but it is unlikely that he talked anybody into voting for his ticket. Paul Ryan didn’t deliver the expected mauling, which will likely be enough for those same media cheerleaders to declare him a flop, but he also probably didn’t convince anybody to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket.

We followed the debate on an over-the-airwaves broadcast, as God intended, but through the miracle of Twitter we learned that a focus group of allegedly undecided voters at CNN seemed to think that Ryan got the better of it. Indeed, the network’s newfangled approval meter was so consistently going up during Ryan’s time and down during Biden’s that several liberals complained it was somehow rigged in the Republican’s favor. There’s no telling if this was an outlier response, but it does seem far-fetched that the folks at CNN, of all people, have suddenly become members of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

The distaff portion of the focus group was most impressed with Ryan, the “Tweeters” report, which is especially good news for a ticket that has until recently struggled to win over women voters. At the risk of sounding slightly sexist, we’ll venture that such a response might be at least in part because Biden is an aging, pudgy, and hair-plugged fellow while Ryan is youthful, famously buff, and thickly coiffed, but Biden’s rather rude behavior throughout the proceedings might also have been a factor. Barack Obama has blamed his universally-panned performance in the first presidential debate on being “too polite,” and Biden was clearly eager not to make such a mistake, interrupting, pouting, inappropriately smiling and smirking to the point that even reliably liberal pundits were “tweeting” their annoyance.

Biden’s reputation for stupid statements also provided Ryan with the only laugh line of the evening. When Biden tried to score points with Mitt Romney’s famous secretly recorded remark about the “47 percent” of Americans who take more from the government than they contribute, Ryan effectively blunted the attack by noting that Biden should understand that “words don’t always come out of your mouth the way you intend.”

Stylistic considerations aside, we thought Ryan prevailed on most of the substantive points. The debate opened with a question about the attack on America’s embassy in Libya and the four resulting deaths, and Biden attempted to deflect attention from the administration’s outrageously incompetent and dishonest role in the fiasco by criticizing Romney for addressing a mealy-mouthed message sent by the embassy in Egypt after a riot there the same day. Biden noted that Romney’s comment was “criticized by media around the world,” but surely most Americans are more concerned with the deaths of four countrymen than the predictable response of the media.

As the debate moved on to broader foreign policy matters, Biden tried to portray the Republicans as blood-thirsty war-mongers while simultaneously boasting how very hawkish and cold-blooded his boss has been. Biden made a similar attempt to have it both ways on the national debt, a pressing problem that Ryan has at least made a serious attempt to address during his congressional career, blasting the Bush administration for its half-trillion deficits while shrugging off the trillion-plus deficits that have occurred during the Obama administration. He even criticized Bush’s expensive prescription drug plan for seniors, then later boasted how seniors don’t have to pay for their prescription drugs.

For reasons known only to the moderator, who once counted Obama as a guest at one of her weddings, both candidates were also asked their shared Catholic faith and how it affects their differing views on abortion. Ryan was forthrightly anti-abortion, stressing his ticket’s moderation in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, thus coming across as the more centrist of the two candidates. Biden also flat-out lied about the administration’s dictate that the Catholic church must provide contraception to the employees of its hospitals and social service organizations, allowing Ryan to wonder out loud why the Church is currently suing the administration.

Ryan also got the better of the closing statements, we thought, reminding the audience of the administration’s many failures and offering a believable argument that he and Romney could do better.

On the whole, that CNN focus group probably got it right.

— Bud Norman

The Great Debate

Wednesday night was a good one. Our beloved New York Yankees at long last clinched the American League’s eastern division title with a 14-to-2 win over the hated Boston Red Sox, and then our man Mitt Romney scored an even more lopsided victory over Barack Obama in their first presidential debate.

Debates are scored by highly subjective criteria, one of their many disadvantages relative to baseball, but we were not alone in declaring Romney the winner. The consensus of conservative pundit opinion agreed, and conservative pundits are notoriously harsh critics of their candidates. The astute fellows at the Powerline site called it a “knockout” for Romney, mixing in a boxing metaphor, and The National Review’s estimable Jonah Goldberg wrote that “Romney simply dominated and deflated Obama.” Matt Welch of the libertarian journal Reason quipped that “Romney just took Obama for a cross country drive strapped to the roof of his car.”

Liberal pundits are usually harsher yet toward conservatives, of course, but even they were forced to concede a Romney victory. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, famous for admitting to feeling a thrill go up his leg every time Obama speaks, was on the air sputtering “What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed.” Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast, who has an even more homoerotic attraction to the president, called the debate “a disaster.” Foul-mouthed comedian Bill Maher, who has raised a million dollars for the president’s campaign, “tweeted” in his typically illiterate style that “i can’t believe i’m saying this; but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.” Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, who currently holds the world record for smugness, further confirmed Romney’s victory when she said “I personally do not know who won this debate tonight.”

More important by far was the public’s reaction, and the early returns indicate most viewers also saw Romney as the winner. The Cable News Network, usually reluctant to report anything embarrassing to Obama, revealed that their viewers picked Romney by 67 to 25 percent. Viewers of the Columbia Broadcast System were less enthusiastic, but still picked Romney by a more than two-to-one plurality. Future polls that will include voters who only heard about the debate will likely show an even larger number declaring Romney the winner.

Much of the result can be attributed to a very poor performance by Obama. Once lauded by the star-struck press as the world’s greatest orator, he was hesitant, halting, defensive, and downright dull throughout the evening. Part of the problem was that he was forced to defend a very hard-to-defend record, such as when Romney noted that candidate Obama had promised to cut the deficit in half within four years but instead had more than doubled it, and with no way to plausibly deny the charges he was unable to come up with any inspiring excuses.

Obama was also clearly out of practice at facing such tough questions, having spent the last four years being coddled by an adoring press corps, a staff full of yes-men and yes-women, and the die-hard fans who still show up for his campaign rallies. At one point during a discussion of tax rates he noted that Donald Trump would be considered a small businessman “although I’m sure Donald doesn’t like to be thought of as small in any way,” then paused for the uproarious laughter that would have surely followed from his usual friendlier crowds, and he seemed stunned by the silence that instead resulted.

The other important reason for Obama’s widely conceded defeat was a very strong performance by Romney. The Republican candidate did much to dispel the image that the Democrats have tried to pin on him simply by walking on to the stage without a top hat, spats, diamond-studded walking stick, and villainous curled moustache, but he further helped himself by coming off as informed, thoughtful, dignified, and friendly and likeable even as he aggressively pressed the case against his opponent. He also helped himself by vigorously denying Obama’s oft-repeated claim that the Republican ticket intends to raise taxes on the middle class while lowering taxes for the filthy rich, and making the most of his opportunity to dispel various other lies that have been told about him. Romney made a solid defense of free market economics while retaining his centrist credentials by acknowledging the need for sensible regulations, and generally seemed the more reasonable of the two candidates.

There’s still a lot of campaign left, just as there’s still plenty of baseball to be played, but it was a good night for the good guys.

— Bud Norman