Here’s what we learned from last night’s vice-presidential debate. On domestic policy, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand for self-sufficiency, compromise, and reducing the government’s rate of growth. Barack Obama and Joe Biden stand for generosity, firmness, and maintaining projected spending. On foreign and defense policy, it’s exactly the opposite. Obama and Biden stand for self-sufficiency, compromise, and cutting back budgetary increases. Romney and Ryan stand for generosity, firmness, and higher spending growth.
Let’s take the major disputes one by one.
1. Welfare. Republicans believe in personal responsibility. That’s what Ryan said last night: “We want to get people out of poverty, in the middle class, onto lives of self-sufficiency.” Romney made the same point in last week’s presidential debate. He faulted Obama for putting more Americans on food stamps.
In Thursday’s debate, Biden rejected this attitude as coldhearted. He accused Ryan of violating the Catholic imperative to care for others. When the financial crisis hit, Biden proudly recalled,
We immediately went out and rescued General Motors. … Romney said, “No, let Detroit go bankrupt.” We moved in and helped people refinance their homes. Gov. Romney said, “No, let foreclosures hit the bottom.” But it shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. … He’s talking about my mother and father. And he’s talking about the places I grew up in, my neighbors in Scranton and Claymont.
But when the conversation shifted from Scranton to Afghanistan, the candidates reversed positions. Ryan insisted we must spend whatever the bureaucracy asks for: “We want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need.” He also denounced the idea of doing more with less: “We’re sending fewer people out in all these hot spots to do the same job that they were supposed to do a month ago.”
Biden, on the other hand, parroted Republican arguments against welfare. He preached tough love against a culture of dependency:
It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security. … We are leaving in 2014, period. And in the process, we’re going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. … Unless you set a timeline, Baghdad in the case of Iraq, and Kabul in the case of Afghanistan, will not step up. They’re happy to let us continue to do the job … The only way they step up is [if we] say, “Fellas, we’re leaving. We’ve trained you. Step up.”
2. Cuts. Democrats believe that when you reduce a program’s rate of growth, that’s a cut. Last night, Biden said Ryan’s budget “cuts education by $450 billion” and “eviscerated all the things that the middle class cares about.” Biden added that Ryan would “increase the tax cuts for the very wealthy.”
Ryan rejected this interpretation. “Not-raising-taxes is not cutting taxes,” he argued. “And, by the way, our budget—we increased spending by 3 percent a year instead of 4 1/2 percent like they proposed. So not spending more money, as much as they say, is not a spending cut.”
When the conversation moved on to the defense budget, however, the parties switched places again. In January, when Obama announced post-Iraq military “spending reductions,” he emphasized: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” Ryan spurned this excuse. Last night, he complained three times about Obama’s “devastating cuts” in defense. “It makes us more weak,” Ryan pleaded. “Don’t cut the military.”
3. Compromise. Romney and Ryan believe in compromise. That’s what Ryan said last night. He boasted that Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, had “reached across the aisle” and “found common ground.” When Biden demanded to know which tax deductions Romney would roll back to pay for his tax-rate cuts, Ryan demurred: “We want to work with Congress on how best to achieve this. … Let’s work together to fill in the details. … That’s how you get things done.”
But when the discussion turned to foreign policy, the candidates traded places again. Three times, Ryan accused the administration of letting Russia “water down” international sanctions against Iran. He demanded tougher sanctions advocated by congressional Republicans. Biden replied that firmness had to be sacrificed for the sake of consensus: “Imagine had we let the Republican Congress work out the sanctions. You think there’s any possibility the entire world would have joined us—Russia and China?” That’s how you get things done, Biden implied: by working with other countries to fill in the details.
If you watched the debate to find out where the candidates stand on specific issues, the exchange was informative. Biden and Ryan pressed and rebutted each other aggressively. But if you hoped to find out which ticket shares your values, good luck. You can vote for the party of self-sufficiency, flexibility, and slower spending growth, or you can vote for the party of compassion, clarity, and sustained financial commitments. But first you’ll have to decide whether you want those principles at home or abroad.
William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: