This morning pundits and backseat drivers galore were gleefully pointing to how well Joe Biden handled the lies of Paul Ryan. And he did. But to suggest that this is how Obama should have handled Romney’s lies is to miss the bigger point. These two Republicans are not the same kinds of liars.
Paul Ryan lied with all of the talking point lies that the Romney ticket has been campaigning on. They were predictable, they have already been debunked, and they were consistent with previous lies. Paul Ryan did not pretend to be something he wasn’t. Yes, he tried to spin his abortion answer, but he proudly endorsed privatizing Social Security and Medicare to such an extent that PolitiFact finally agreed that it is mostly true when Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to do just that to Medicare.
That’s not what Romney did at all.
Romney took to the stage as a completely different politician. He denied most of his previous positions, claiming the center and even left for himself, leaving Obama stunned. It was a complete about face, a debate performance of such craven duplicity that immediately after it, once again, the Romney campaign was backtracking quietly.
Certainly the President has to figure out how to debate the many Mitts. But watching Biden isn’t going to help Obama debate a pathological liar. Ryan is a politician who lies like most politicians, though with less apparent shame and a refusal to be dictated to by facts. Romney was not spinning his positions in the first debate, he abandoned them. He presented himself as Obama lite. How do you debate that?
On the issues Romney was fact-checked for, the press often declared that Romney had once taken this position, he had “said” it, therefor it was true; it was his position. Talk about a mine field.
Given the way the press factchecks, which allows Romney to take both sides of a position and therefor disavow what is unpopular with a specific audience, I can see only one alternative for the President in the next debate. Instead of saying what Romney’s policies are, he is going to have to say “Romney said x, and then he said y.” That is true and the factcheckers can’t deny it. He will have to present this to the public in a presidential way, suggesting that Romney is not being truthful with them because of the conflicts between his stated policies for different audiences.
Last night, a focus group participant said that while she thought Biden had won, he wasn’t vice presidential because he interrupted Ryan. Yet, we were told that Romney’s interrupting and braying in the first debate was the sign of a win. You can see that the incumbents carry a different burden in the debates, particularly the President. He must find a way of being presidential and yet call out the utter cravenness of Romney’s refusal to take responsibility for all of his stated positions.
In the first debate, Obama chose to take the path least fraught with peril. Yes, he lost the debate, but he didn’t lose his dignity, his stature, or the trust of the American people. In the next debate, he can take more risks, but still needs to be cautious to maintain the dignity of his office. Now that the narrative has been established that Romney was less than truthful, Obama has more room to make those charges.
It’s a mistake to conflate the predictable and banal lies of Ryan with the insane, surreal lies of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney took to that debate stage and disowned everything he had stood for during almost his entire career. It wasn’t the little lies that tripped Obama; it was the Big Lie. The President wasn’t standing next to Mitt Romney, whom he was prepared to debate. He was standing next to Obama lite and there was no one to call Romney out on his sudden, unforeseen and not backed up by his policies, lurch to the left.