Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Analysis: October 2nd Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin in Missouri

Following are excerpts of the vice presidential debate [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, October 2, 2008] between Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, hosted and moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS:

IFILL: The House of Representatives this week passed a bill, a big bailout bill -- or didn't pass it, I should say. The Senate decided to pass it, and the House is wrestling with it still tonight. As America watches these things happen on Capitol Hill, Senator Biden, was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?

BIDEN: ... I think it's neither the best or worst of Washington, but it's evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had. As a consequence, you've seen what's happened on Wall Street. If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been, this excessive deregulation, the failure to oversee what was going on, letting Wall Street run wild, I don't think you needed any more evidence than what you see now.

Comment: Echoing his running mate -- Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in the presidential debate -- Biden is making the "failed policies" accusation against Bush and McCain (and, again, Republicans more generally) without going into the detail necessary to substantiate such an accusation. Biden has to provide a detailed argument if he is going to blame the current financial difficulties on the policies of President George W. Bush and other Republicans. He makes the accusation, but provides very little substance to back it up.

Responding to the same question from Ifill, Palin seemed to endorse the rescue effort passed by the Senate, though she didn't obviously answer whether this action represented the "best or worst" of Washington politics.


IFILL: You both would like to be vice president. Senator Biden, how, as vice president, would you work to shrink this gap of polarization which has sprung up in Washington, which you both have spoken about here tonight?

Comment: As Ifill soon noted, neither candidate answered this question.

Biden said that shrinking the gap of polarization is "what I've done my whole career ... I have been able to reach across the aisle". And Palin said that she and her running mate -- Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- are both "known for putting partisan politics aside to just get the job done". But neither of them said what they WOULD do in the future to lessen political polarization. Nor did either of them give much substance to their claims that they had done so in the past.

Moreover, Ifill's question seemed to be premised on a call to unify the country (i.e., how would the candidates promote unity instead of polarity). But, as is typical of such calls, she doesn't spell out what kind of unity is desirable or even possible.


PALIN: Now, Barack Obama, of course, he's pretty much only voted along his party lines. In fact, 96 percent of his votes have been solely along party line, not having that proof for the American people to know that his commitment, too, is, you know, put the partisanship, put the special interests aside, and get down to getting business done for the people of America.

Comment: Palin is making a call to get "special interests" out of politics. But she doesn't define what a special interest is, why they are a bad thing, or why they should be viewed as standing in the way of "getting business done for the people of America."


BIDEN: We let Wall Street run wild. John McCain and he's a good man, but John McCain thought the answer is that tried and true Republican response, deregulate, deregulate.

Comment: This is a caricature. It is not true that McCain and Republicans answer every economic difficulty with a call to deregulate any more than Biden and Democrats answer every economic difficulty with a call MORE regulations.


BIDEN: Gwen, the governor did not answer the question about deregulation, did not answer the question of defending John McCain about not going along with the deregulation, letting Wall Street run wild.

Comment: Palin was not asked about McCain's position on deregulation. Biden -- as noted in the previous excerpt -- made an accusation in that direction, but Ifill never asked Palin to reply to it. After Biden made his accusation about McCain and deregulation, Ifill asked Palin to reply to Biden's comments on health care. Palin instead responded to Biden's comments on tax cuts, after which Biden made the above statement faulting her for not talking about deregulation.


IFILL: Senator Biden, we want to talk about taxes, let's talk about taxes. You proposed raising taxes on people who earn over $250,000 a year. The question for you is, why is that not class warfare and the same question for you, Governor Palin, is you have proposed a tax employer health benefits which some studies say would actually throw five million more people onto the roles of the uninsured. I want to know why that isn't taking things out on the poor, starting with you, Senator Biden.

BIDEN: Well Gwen, where I come from, it's called fairness, just simple fairness. The middle class is struggling. The middle class under John McCain's tax proposal, 100 million families, middle class families, households to be precise, they got not a single change, they got not a single break in taxes. No one making less than $250,000 under Barack Obama's plan will see one single penny of their tax raised whether it's their capital gains tax, their income tax, investment tax, any tax. And 95 percent of the people in the United States of America making less than $150,000 will get a tax break. Now, that seems to me to be simple fairness. The economic engine of America is middle class. It's the people listening to this broadcast. When you do well, America does well. Even the wealthy do well. This is not punitive. John wants to add $300 million, billion in new tax cuts per year for corporate America and the very wealthy while giving virtually nothing to the middle class. We have a different value set. The middle class is the economic engine. It's fair. They deserve the tax breaks, not the super wealthy who are doing pretty well. They don't need any more tax breaks. And by the way, they'll pay no more than they did under Ronald Reagan.

Comment: I think it should be noted that Biden mentions several different moral considerations in this discussion of tax policy, here, though they are jumbled together and not clearly identified.

He says that raising taxes on those with higher incomes is a matter of fairness. In particular, he says that middle-income families are "struggling", insisting that they should have their taxes lowered, or at least not raised. This is an appeal to the moral consideration of compassion and aiding the needy.

He then calls the middle class the "economic engine of America", which is a different appeal. He seems to be arguing that a prosperous middle class will bring about good consequences for the country as a whole, including those who are not middle-class.

After this, he insists that Obama's tax proposals are "not punitive", which is an attempt to argue against the claim that taxing the wealthy (at a higher rate than those who are not wealthy) amounts to punishing success, rather than rewarding it. So, Biden is trying to reassure people that Obama's tax proposals will not violate the moral consideration of merit, which calls on us to reward those who work harder and are more productive.

Biden concludes by making another appeal to the consideration of need, saying that the wealthy are not in need, and therefore shouldn't get tax breaks.

So, Biden has several different arguments going on in his remarks. I'm not going to go into whether he does a good job of making any of these arguments -- although, I will say that he does a poor job of simply separating them out, and he makes little effort at defending his definitions of "middle class" and "wealthy" -- but I think it's worthwhile pointing out how many different moral considerations are entering into this discussion.


PALIN: Now you said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that's not patriotic. Patriotic is saying, government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper. An increased tax formula that Barack Obama is proposing in addition to nearly a trillion dollars in new spending that he's proposing is the backwards way of trying to grow our economy.

Comment: Palin is referring to remarks that Biden made on September 3 and September 18, 2008. I have discussed these remarks in a recent post: Joe Biden Calls it "Patriotic" to Pay More in Taxes.

Palin is correct to criticize Biden's remarks about patriotism and taxation. However, she is also to be faulted for giving a one-sided account of the issue, as my recent post also discusses.


BIDEN: The bottom line here is that we are going to, in fact, eliminate those wasteful spending that exist in the budget right now, a number of things I don't have time, because the light is blinking, that I won't be able to mention, but one of which is the $100 billion tax dodge that, in fact, allows people to take their post office box off-shore, avoid taxes. I call that unpatriotic. I call that unpatriotic.

Comment: Again, more of Biden's one-sided take on the relationship between patriotism and taxation.


BIDEN: [On the topic of climate change and global warming] If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is man-made. That's the cause. That's why the polar icecap is melting.

Comment: It's not obvious that this claim -- that you have to know the CAUSE of global warming in order to know how to SOLVE it -- is true. Is it the case that you can only solve a problem if you know what caused it?

More, acknowledging that there is a man-made cause of global warming doesn't obviously get you closer to a man-made solution to global warming. After all, there are several things that people can cause but not reverse (e.g., death).


BIDEN: John McCain has voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources and thinks, I guess, the only answer is drill, drill, drill. ... But here's the bottom line, Gwen: How do we deal with global warming with continued addition to carbon emissions? And if the only answer you have is oil, and John -- and the governor says John is for everything.

Comment: This is a caricature. More, it is a specific kind that you could call the "silver bullet" caricature.

McCain certainly has proposed drilling for oil domestically as a way of meeting our energy needs. But Biden is distorting McCain by saying that this is the ONLY proposal McCain has made. In fact, McCain has proposed other avenues in order to increase our supply of energy, including nuclear power, coal power, and alternative energies such as wind, solar, etc.

For Biden to say that McCain has only suggested domestic oil drilling -- as if McCain believes that drilling is the silver bullet needed to kill the werewolf that is our energy crisis -- is simply a distortion.


PALIN: Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that's for sure.

Comment: This is a caricature. Neither Obama nor Biden has advocated surrender in Iraq. Surrender involves your troops ceasing hostilities, laying down their arms and allowing themselves to be taken captive. Obama has advocated withdrawal of much of the U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as a reduction in combat operations there. But he has not called for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq, or even for a complete cessation of combat operations there, let alone for U.S. forces to surrender.


IFILL: Let's move to Iran and Pakistan. I'm curious about what you think starting with you Senator Biden. What's the greater threat, a nuclear Iran or an unstable Afghanistan? Explain why.

Comment: Neither Biden nor Palin answered this question. Though they each described a nuclear Iran and an unstable Afghanistan as "extremely dangerous", neither of them made any attempt to evaluate whether one was more of a threat than the other, or if they were equally dangerous.


BIDEN: Gwen, no one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden. I would have never, ever joined this ticket were I not absolutely sure Barack Obama shared my passion. But you asked a question about whether or not this administration's policy had made sense or something to that effect. It has been an abject failure, this administration's policy.

Comment: Biden is making the "failed policies" accusation with respect to the Bush administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Biden doesn't do nearly enough to substantiate his accusation. For instance, what policies WILL or WOULD HAVE worked in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?


BIDEN: When we kicked -- along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, "Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know -- if you don't, Hezbollah will control it." Now what's happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.

Comment: Biden is making a bluntly false statement about the history of Lebanon, Hezbollah, the U.S. and France. Hezbollah has never been "kicked out" of Lebanon: certainly not in the time since Obama became a senator, and certainly not by the U.S. or France.

Many of the assertions made in this and other debates are dubious, but this is a falsehood that is not even arguable. Yet Ifill never challenged Biden on this, nor did Palin.


IFILL: Governor, on another issue, interventionism, nuclear weapons. What should be the trigger, or should there be a trigger, when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?

PALIN: Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be all, end all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period. Our nuclear weaponry here in the U.S. is used as a deterrent. And that's a safe, stable way to use nuclear weaponry. But for those countries -- North Korea, also, under Kim Jong-il -- we have got to make sure that we're putting the economic sanctions on these countries and that we have friends and allies supporting us in this to make sure that leaders like Kim Jong-il and Ahmadinejad are not allowed to acquire, to proliferate, or to use those nuclear weapons. It is that important.

Comment: Palin does not answer the question, which concerned when nuclear weapons should be used. Palin says that the use of nuclear weapons would be unfortunate, and that our possession of them constitutes a deterrent, but she never says under what circumstances they should be USED rather than simply POSSESSED.


IFILL: Senator, you have quite a record, this is the next question here, of being an interventionist. You argued for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, initially in Iraq and Pakistan and now in Darfur, putting U.S. troops on the ground. Boots on the ground. Is this something the American public has the stomach for?

Comment: Palin was also asked to respond to this question -- regarding whether the American public would be willing to intervene militarily in places such as Darfur -- but she did not give an answer.


IFILL: We're going to move on to the next question. Governor, you said in July that someone would have to explain to you exactly what it is the vice president does every day. You, senator, said, you would not be vice president under any circumstances. Now maybe this was just what was going on at the time. But tell us now, looking forward, what it is you think the vice presidency is worth now.

Comment: Ifill is referring to Biden's remarks, made August 10, 2007 on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes show:

ALAN COLMES: What do you think when people say, "Joe Biden, he'd be strong on security. Great vice president."

BIDEN: I know. Well, the one that I find fascinating now is I'm apparently everybody's choice for secretary of state. A very nice thing. But I am not running for vice president. I would -- I would not accept it if anyone offered it to me. The fact of the matter is I would much prefer to stay as the chairman of the foreign relations committee than vice-president.

Biden never answered Ifill's question, however, or even acknowledged that he had pledged to turn down the vice presidential nomination. Instead, he answered the question that was put to Palin regarding what the role of the vice president is.


BIDEN: But the notion that somehow, because I'm a man, I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone, I don't know what it's like to have a child you're not sure is going to -- is going to make it -- I understand.

Comment: Biden is correct to say that his ability to empathize with the plight of others shouldn't be dismissed on the basis of gender. However, it's not clear that anyone made that assertion. Certainly not Ifill or Palin. Who, then, are these remarks aimed at?


PALIN: And we have not got to allow the partisanship that has really been entrenched in Washington, D.C., no matter who's been in charge.

Comment: Palin appears to be making a call to unify the country. But she doesn't say what sort of unity is desirable or even possible. What instances of partisanship is she referring to, and what is wrong with such partisanship? Is she proposing to agree with Democrats from now on, in the name of unity? Of course not. She needs to give substance to this remark.


IFILL: Let's come full circle. You both want to bring both sides together. You both talk about bipartisanship. Once again, we saw what happened this week in Washington. How do you change the tone, as vice president, as number-two?

BIDEN: Well, again, I believe John McCain, were he here -- and this is a dangerous thing to say in the middle of an election -- but he would acknowledge what I'm about to say. I have been able to work across the aisle on some of the most controversial issues and change my party's mind, as well as Republicans', because I learned a lesson from Mike Mansfield. Mike Mansfield, a former leader of the Senate, said to me one day -- he -- I made a criticism of Jesse Helms. He said, "What would you do if I told you Jesse Helms and Dot Helms had adopted a child who had braces and was in real need?" I said, "I'd feel like a jerk." He said, "Joe, understand one thing. Everyone's sent here for a reason, because there's something in them that their folks like. Don't question their motive." I have never since that moment in my first year questioned the motive of another member of the Congress or Senate with whom I've disagreed. I've questioned their judgment. I think that's why I have the respect I have and have been able to work as well as I've been able to have worked in the United States Senate. That's the fundamental change Barack Obama and I will be bring to this party, not questioning other people's motives.

Comment: Ifill again submits a question based on a call to unify the country. And, again, she doesn't spell out what kind of unity is desirable or even possible.

Biden, for his part, says that the answer is to not question people's motivations, advocating it as a higher standard of debate and discussion. He says that he has lived up to this standard for a long time.

Assuming that he has really lived up to this standard, though, has it been successful? Is he really, as a result, significantly less partisan? Has he changed the tone in Washington with this kind of behavior?

More, questioning somebody's motivations isn't the only way of being derisive and failing to engage in civil debate. (Biden himself provides a good illustration of deriding one's opponents without questioning their motives towards the end of the debate: see below.) There is name-calling, ad hominem reasoning, calling your opponents stupid, misrepresenting and exaggerating the consequences of your opponent's policies, and so on.

So, while it's good hat Biden has pledged not to impugn his opponent's motives, it's hardly sufficient to create an atmosphere of civil debate in Washington.

(Keep in mind, too, that questioning people's motives is a very unreliable way of criticizing their actions. Bad things can be done out of good motives, and good things can be done out of bad motives.)


IFILL: [Addressing Palin on the same question regarding bipartisanship and changing the tone in Washington] Governor?

PALIN: You do what I did as governor, and you appoint people regardless of party affiliation, Democrats, independents, Republicans. You -- you walk the walk; you don't just talk the talk. And even in my own family, it's a very diverse family. And we have folks of all political persuasion in there, also, so I've grown up just knowing that, you know, at the end of the day, as long as we're all working together for the greater good, it's going to be OK. But the policies and the proposals have got to speak for themselves, also. And, again, voters on November 4th are going to have that choice to either support a ticket that supports policies that create jobs. You do that by lowering taxes on American workers and on our businesses. And you build up infrastructure, and you rein in government spending, and you make our -- our nation energy independent. Or you support a ticket that supports policies that will kill jobs by increasing taxes. And that's what the track record shows, is a desire to increase taxes, increase spending, a trillion-dollar spending proposal that's on the table. That's going to hurt our country, and saying no to energy independence. Clear choices on November 4th.

Comment: Palin first suggests appointing people regardless of party affiliation, which she says she has done, but she doesn't substantiate her claim that this has reduced partisanship and improved the tone of politics.

She goes on to mention the importance of knowing that everyone is "working together for the greater good". I take this to be a commitment along the lines of Biden's refusal to impugn the motives of his opponents, with all the same problems I noted above.

She ends by accusing her opponents of having failed economic policies -- as usual, without the necessary substantiation -- and describing them as saying "no" to energy independence, which is simply a caricature: it's fine for her to argue that her opponent's policies will fail to result in energy independence, but it's not OK to misrepresent them as BEING OPPOSED to energy independence.

In summary, she offers unclear suggestions about how to decrease partisanship, and then moves on to deriding her opponents.


BIDEN: And Barack Obama and I don't measure progress toward that change based on whether or not we cut more regulations and how well CEOs are doing, or giving another $4 billion in tax breaks to the Exxon Mobils of the world.

Comment: Obama made a similar assertion in his acceptance speech August 28, 2008 (Analysis: Barack Obama: Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech). As then, this is a caricature that serves to demonize Republicans, to make it look like they evaluate the health of the economy merely by looking at wealthy CEOs and oil companies.

Biden just got through talking about how he wouldn't question his opponent's motives: but caricaturing them in this way is hardly any better than questioning their motivations, is it?

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