You want theater criticism? Here's Mary McNamara, the LA Times' TV critic, on last night's debate:

Vice President Joe Biden spent most of his 90-minute televised showdown with Paul D. Ryan on Thursday night looking like he was having the time of his life....You almost expected him to prop his feet up and say, "Sonny, you just keep tellin' 'em."

....Intimacy is just what Biden wanted. Smiling and more than occasionally laughing in apparent disbelief when Ryan spoke, flatly correcting him, repeatedly contradicting him and often interrupting him, Biden often seemed like he was sharing a joke with the audience. "That's a bunch of malarkey," he said early on when Ryan accused the Obama administration of misleading the public about the nature of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya.

Conservatives seem to have decided that they're going all-in on Biden's demeanor as their primary point of attack, and this provides us with an excellent field study of working the refs. As near as I can tell, the general reaction last night was that Biden was pretty good: loose, aggressive, passionate, and taking no guff from Ryan. At worst, maybe he overdid things a bit, but that's all.

Question: will that consensus change as conservatives continue to hammer relentlessly on their theme that Biden was rude, condescending, obnoxious, creepy, unbearable, etc. etc.? I suspect it will, though perhaps less so than it would have a few years ago. Nonetheless, the right-wing reality-distortion machine is still pretty strong. This will certainly be a bigger topic of conversation today than it deserves to be.

We all struggle trying to explain why Mitt Romney's tax plan is....inconsistent with reality. Here's another crack at unpacking the basics behind the famous TPC study that originally made this point. It's actually pretty simple:

  • Romney has promised a 20% across-the-board rate cut. The part of this cut that affects people making over $200,000 per year would reduce tax revenues by about $251 billion per year. 
  • But wait! What about the economic growth this will unleash? That's mostly mythical, but let's bend over backwards here. If you incorporate the growth estimate of one of Romney's advisors, Greg Mankiw, Romney's rate cuts for the wealthy would only cost about $215 billion per year.
  • Next, try to pick out a set of deductions and loopholes that can be closed to make up for this revenue loss.
  • But wait! Romney hasn't said exactly which deductions he would target. So it's not fair to pick and choose specific deductions. Fine. Instead, let's assume that Romney completely eliminates every single deduction for high earners. All of them. It turns out this would make up $165 billion per year.
  • So even under the best possible assumptions, Romney's plan would cut taxes on the rich by $50 billion per year.
  • But Romney says he won't cut taxes on the rich.

This is the point at which, on Star Trek, smoke starts coming out of the computer and it implodes because it was forced to consider a logical impossibility. Here in the real world, it's the point at which conservatives desperately start trying to invent clever excuses. Martin Feldstein gave it a shot, but it turned out that he calculated wrong: Romney's plan can't work under Romney's conditions. It can only work if you eliminate deductions all the way down to people earning $100,000. Harvey Rosen gave it a shot, but succeeded only by assuming wildly implausible growth estimates. Charles Dubay gave it a shot, but miscalculated a provision of the estate tax. Matt Jensen gave it a shot, but made things work only by assuming that Romney might eliminate the interest exclusion on life insurance savings and state bonds. This is pretty unlikely, though, since a centerpiece of Romney's plan is to cut taxes on investment income, not raise them.

Needless to say, Romney knows all this. The guy ran Bain Capital for years. If there's anything he knows his way around, it's a spreadsheet. So is it fair to say flat-out that he's lying about his tax plan? I guess reasonable people can disagree, but I'd say it is. There really aren't any plausible assumptions under which his plan can work, and he obviously knows it. But he keeps saying it anyway. If that's not a lie, what is?

UPDATE: More detail here from Josh Barro. He's more generous than I am toward Jensen's critique, but even at that Romney's plan doesn't come close to adding up.

Atrios comments on debate topics:

We'll see how the remaining debates go, but it's interesting how now that issues that were (perhaps wrongly) for years seen as things Democrats had to be on defense about are seen more as strengths, they mostly disappear as issues. Immigration, Teh Gay Marriage, Abortion. Yes abortion made an appearance, but the question wasn't about abortion, it was about how Joe Biden could defy his church.

I don't know for sure why these topics were mostly absent, but after the debate I was musing about that too. We've had two debates now that have included endless discussions of taxes and economic plans, and sure, those are important topics. But let's face it: they're also deadly boring, and most viewers probably zone out pretty quickly. But how about gay marriage? Abortion? Gun rights? Immigration? Climate change? Drug laws? Religious liberty? I'll bet most voters are actually a lot more interested in those topics than they are in Syria or the optimal top marginal rate on millionaires, and yet they've been almost completely absent from the debates. Abortion and (relatedly) religious liberty got very brief mentions last night before Martha Raddatz got bored with them, and in last week's debate these topics got no attention at all.

Why? Is it because the moderators don't personally care about these things much? Is it because they somehow consider them less serious than questions about the economy? It certainly can't be because there's no disagreement between the parties on these issues. It's weird.

Barrels of ink have been spilled over Medicare during this year's campaign. There's nothing wrong with that: Obama and Romney have fundamentally different approaches to Medicare and they deserve attention. Romney, for example, wants to increase the eligibility age to 67 and convert Medicare into a voucher system that relies primarily on competition between private firms to rein in costs. That's a big change. At the same time, the actual differences in what the two candidates would spend on Medicare is fairly modest. This is more a fight over means than ends.

The same can't be said for Medicaid. Romney wants radical changes here too, promising to "block grant" Medicaid if he's elected. This means the program would be turned over entirely to the states. The federal government would continue to provide a share of funding, but that funding would go straight into state coffers, and states could decide how to spend it. So the question is: Once released from federal regulations, what would states do with their Medicaid money?

Romney's plan represents a massive change in our commitment to providing decent medical care for those who can least afford it.

Some states would probably try some genuinely interesting experiments, though it's unlikely we'll ever discover any magic bullets for reining in health care costs on a state level. But lots of states, especially poor states in the South, don't have much interest in experimenting. They just want to slash eligibility for Medicaid. Given the freedom to do it, they'd adopt what Ed Kilgore calls the "Mississippi model," cutting off coverage for a family of three earning anything over $8,200. For all the talk of fresh thinking and new solutions, what they really want to do is simple: They want to stop providing medical care for poor people.

But that's not all. In this case, there's more than just differences in ideology at work. Unlike Medicare, which he's willing to fund at about the same rate as Obama, Romney doesn't want to spend as much on Medicaid as Obama does. In fact, he wants to take a chainsaw to it. Aaron Carroll and Austin Frakt took a look at the Romney and Obama plans in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week, and the chart above shows their conclusions. On Medicare, the two candidates want to spend roughly similar amounts of money. On Medicaid, Romney wants to spend way, way less. And not just on poor people. As Jon Cohn points out, cuts of this size will have a huge impact on "dual eligibles," elderly patients who rely on Medicaid to pay their nursing home bills. This is not a minor point of technocratic disagreement. It represents a massive change in our commitment to providing decent medical care for those who can least afford it. Medicaid, much more than Medicare, demonstrates what's really at stake in November's election.

The biggest deception of the debate clearly belonged to Paul Ryan when he talked about unemployment: "You know what the unemployment rate in Scranton is today?" he asked. "It’s 10 percent. You know what it was the day you guys came in—8.5 percent. That’s how it's going all around America." That's so flatly wrong I'm honestly surprised Ryan was willing to go there. The unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent in October 2009. Last month it was down to 7.8 percent. That's how it's going all around, and Ryan knows it.

A CBS flash poll of independents calls the debate 50%-31% for Biden. A CNN poll of all voters calls it 48-44 for Ryan.

Question: Was I the only one who found the following exchange at the end of the debate really off-putting?

MARTHA RADDATZ: I recently spoke to a highly decorated soldier who said that this presidential campaign has left him dismayed. He told me, quote, "The ads are so negative and they are all tearing down each other rather than building up the country." What would you say to that American hero about this campaign?

RYAN: First of all, I'd thank him to his service to our country…And then I would say, you have a president who ran for president four years ago promising hope and change, who has now turned his campaign into attack, blame and defame. You see, if you don't have a good record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone to run from. That was what President Obama said in 2008. It's what he’s doing right now. Look at all the string of broken promises…

The question was about negativity, and Ryan, without blinking, immediately launched into a bitter negative attack. I don't know how many people noticed this, but it sure struck me as badly off in tone.

Joe Biden very forcefully—and repeatedly—insisted tonight that Iran was nowhere near getting a bomb and it wasn't really something to worry about right now. Was this a good line to take? Substantively, he has a good argument: Iran isn't close to getting a bomb, and Iran doesn't have a delivery vehicle in any case. But 10 years of warmongering has made me skeptical that this is a good tack to take. It sounds weak and naive. I sure hope I'm wrong about that.

Andrew Sullivan, who had by far the biggest freakout over Obama's performance last week, is apparently happier tonight: "I have to say that Biden did to Ryan what Cheney did to Edwards [in 2004] in style and demeanor and authoritah. Ryan was hampered by an insurmountable problem on the impossible mathematics of the Romney budget. I think his inability to answer that question—how do you pay for it?—has to be the driving question now."

David Roberts:  "The GOP complaint, if I'm hearing them correctly, is that Joe Biden smiled & laughed too much while kicking their candidate's ass." Yeah, pretty much. The Fox News crowd is going absolutely nuts over Biden's smiling and laughing. I guess I don't blame them, really. I probably would too if I were them. Partly this is because I think Biden overdid things on this score, but mostly because it's a lot easier than trying to take on the substance of the debate, where Biden pretty clearly got the better of Ryan. However, this will be a good test of the right's ability to drive the media conversation. Conservatives are going all in about how condescending and inappropriate and just plain insulting Biden's laughing was, and how it's really the big takeaway from the debate. (Karl Rove: "It's what people will remember 20 years from now." Greta Van Susteren is just flatly insisting that this ought to be the main media narrative in the morning.) But they're obviously protesting too much. I don't think it will fly this time.

Martha Raddatz is getting good reviews from everyone except Sarah Palin, who says "Paul Ryan was underfoot" the entire debate because Raddatz let him run roughshod. Sean Hannity then made a remark about Obama attending Raddatz's wedding 20 years ago. Good grief.

I thought Paul Ryan was unusually brazen in his defense of the Republican insistence on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Biden made the reasonable point that you could easily vote separately on extending the cuts for the middle class and extending the cuts for the rich, but Republicans refuse to do that: "They’re holding hostage the middle class tax cut to the super wealthy." This was Ryan's response:

Look, if you taxed every person and successful business making over $250,000 at 100 percent, it would only run the government for 98 days. If everybody who paid income taxes last year, including successful small businesses, doubled their income taxes this year, we'd still have a $300 billion deficit. You see? There aren't enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending.

And so the next time you hear them say, "Don't worry about it, we'll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share," watch out, middle class, the tax bill's coming to you.

That's kind of breathtaking, no? First, he says that ending tax cuts for the rich wouldn't solve the entire deficit problem all by itself, so therefore we shouldn't do it. Huh? Then he attempts some jiu jitsu by suggesting that if you're in favor of partly solving the deficit problem with tax hikes on the rich, then "watch out, middle class, the tax bill's coming to you." Double huh? I wonder if anyone fell for that?

Ezra Klein tweets: "Ryan is better at talking entitlements than Romney. He sounds excited about the changes for his generation. Romney makes them sound terrible." There's some truth to this. Ryan has a remarkable ability to make his cuts sound really appealing. I attribute this partly to the fact that he really believes what he says, and partly to the fact that so many young people are convinced that Medicare and Social Security won't be there for them unless they're cut. They believe this, of course, mainly because people like Paul Ryan have been telling them this for so long.

Chuck Todd: "The Twitter liberals I follow seem incredibly fired up about Biden; the Twitter conservatives I follow, seem incredibly fired up about Biden." It's true on Fox too. They're mostly obsessing over Biden's demeanor, not Ryan's performance.

By the way, Biden didn't use the word "literally" a single time tonight.

And hey—how did the hack gap make out tonight? Matthew Cain: "Starting to believe @kdrum." Michael Linden: "@kdrum's hack gap is on full display tonight. If the performances were reversed, liberal pundits would be in full retreat." Ryan Cooper: "The hack gap is on prominent display after this debate. Right rallies around Ryan." Yep.

Finally, what did my own personal focus group have to say about the debate? According to Marian, Ryan looked like an "entry level" vice president. Very perceptive, I'd say.

WRAP-UP: Biden came out of the gate swinging, accusing Ryan of peddling "malarkey" in his very first statement. This set the tone for the entire debate: Biden was pretty hot throughout, openly laughing at Ryan's responses, getting testy even with Martha Raddatz at one point, and letting his anger show on three or four occasions. Generally speaking, I think he kept this under control, but not always. Ryan's calmer demeanor served him pretty well throughout. Transcript here.

Substantively, the discussion of taxes seemed like a draw. This is frustrating. The fact that Romney's plan doesn't add up is an obvious point of attack, and yet neither Biden nor Obama seems to have a well-rehearsed 60-second schtick to explain it. Maybe it's impossible. Maybe there's just no way to score a clean win in an argument that revolves around numbers and tax jargon. Biden pointed out the problems with the Romney tax plan, but Ryan then just flatly lied and insisted that Romney's plan really did add up. There's no plausible way that's true, and Biden tried to trap him on specific deductions, but Ryan just smiled his way through it. When Raddatz asked him he could guarantee that everything added up, Ryan said absolutely yes. How do you fight that in 60 seconds?

I thought the strongest part of the debate for Biden came on Afghanistan and Syria. On Afghanistan, he was surprisingly firm about the 2014 withdrawal deadline: "We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period." And when Ryan responded with a primer on the fighting season, Biden had a good response: "That's right, we’re sending in more Afghans to do the job." Not only is this an answer I like, but I think it's an answer the American public likes too. It also left Ryan flatfooted since he wanted to disagree, but couldn't really point to anything specific Romney would do differently. He sounded a bit petulant, disagreeing just for the sake of disagreement.

On Syria, Biden again did a good job of flatfooting Ryan on exactly what they'd do differently if they were in charge. Ryan had nothing to say, so he just retreated to talking points about how slowly everything had gone and how Romney would have done better by projecting strength and resolve. Or something. He didn't come out on top here.

I liked Raddatz's question about whether abortion supporters had reason to be worried if Romney were elected. The obvious answer is yes, but Ryan had to tap dance around it a bit. This probably didn't hurt him too much, especially since Raddatz cut off the segment pretty quickly, but it was a little weaselly.

On the economy generally, I'd score the debate a draw. Biden did a good job of defending the past four years, but not a good job of setting out a vision for the next four. This isn't his fault, though: Obama hasn't done much on this score, so there's no vision to tout. In the end, though, this didn't hurt him since Ryan couldn't do much better. He had a hard time defending his tax cuts for the rich and a hard time defending his Medicare plan. When Biden asked "Who do you trust on this?" my guess is that most people picked him over Ryan just because Biden was so obviously passionate about protecting the middle class. But I wouldn't swear to that.

Overall, I guess I'd score this about the opposite of Wednesday's debate: Biden gets a B, Ryan gets a B-.

Here we go. It's time to liveblog the 2012 vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky. Let's do this.

10:33 - And that's a wrap.

10:32 - Ryan's closing statement seems way too memorized. Just the same talking points he's used a bunch of times before.

10:30 - In closing statement, Biden admits his "frustration" during the debate. That's probably a good concession. He did indeed sometimes seem a little too angry/frustrated at times. Ryan, by contrast, sometimes seemed a little exasperated.

10: 28 - Whining about how much time you're getting is never a good idea. Period.

10:27 - Ryan's strategy seems to be that no matter what the question is, the answer is a stump speech.

10:26 - On the other hand, Ryan's attack was reasonably effective.

10:25 - Raddatz asks what they'd say to a war vet who thinks campaigns are too negative. Biden gives decent, somber answer. Ryan immediately responds with negative attack. Sheesh.

10:20 - Raddatz asks Ryan if voters should be worried about abortion rights if Romney elected. Ryan declines to answer. Biden's response pretty good. Raddatz moves on, which is probably good news for Ryan.

10:18 - Biden on abortion: "I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others."

10:14 - I'd score the Syria segment a win for Biden. He's correct that Romney has never really said what he'd do differently. When Raddatz asked Ryan about that, he stammered and retreated to talking points about the UN and Russia. And his criteria for intervention? "The national interest." No kidding. He had no answer.

10:07 - Biden on troop drawdowns: "That's right, we're sending in more Aghans to do the job."

10:06 - Not sure this whole fighting season thing is getting across to anyone, despite Ryan's efforts to "explain" everything.

10:03 - Glad to hear Biden being so firm on 2014 timeline, but surprised too. Is this new?

10:02 - Ryan: We agree with the timeline, but we don't want to broadcast our timeline to our enemies. Spare me.

10:00 - Biden: "It is the responsibility of the Aghans to take care of their own security." Good response. "We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period."

9:56 - Overall, Biden's demeanor is pretty hot. Ryan is mostly fairly cool.

9:55 - Not sure who came out on top on taxes. Too many numbers for most people to follow. Too easy for Ryan to just make flat claims and not have to back them up.

9:54 - Biden: "Can you guarantee that no one making less than $100,000 will have their mortgage deduction impacted? Guarantee?" Ryan not willing to answer.

9:52 - Biden doing a good job of pointing out deductions that would have to be cut.  Ryan just flatly lying about being able to fund rate cuts with deduction closures. But trotting out the usual excuses for not being willing to say how it would work.

9:50 - Ryan's tax wonkery not working well. Raddatz: "And you guarantee this math will add up?" Ryan says "absolutely."

9:49 - Ryan's basic tax message seems to be that raising taxes on the rich isn't enough to close the entire deficit, so it's obviously not worth doing. Um....

9:48 - Wow. Ryan somehow trying to claim that if Obama won't cut taxes on the rich, that must mean he wants to increase taxes on the middle class. Smooth move if he gets away with it.

9:45 - Uh oh. About to get in the weeds on taxes.

9:40 - Biden interrupting too much.

9:39 - Biden: "Folks, follow your instincts on this one." Romney/Ryan will slash Medicare.

9:37 - Biden speaking directly to the camera: seniors have more benefits today than when we took office.

9:33 - Generally speaking, Ryan is coming across as pretty credible so far. Biden is attacking him hard, but I'm not sure if he's being specific enough to do a lot of damage. However, the bit about Ryan writing letters asking for stimulus funds was pretty good.

9:32 - Biden might need to cool it on the split screen laughter at Ryan.

9:30 - Biden: "If they'd get out of the way" we'll create more jobs. Good attack on Republican obstructionism.

9:26 - 47%! Plus a bonus 30%! Biden has "had it up to here" with Grover Norquist. He's sure a lot more animated about the economy than he was about Iran.

9:20 - Bibi's my friend! I hope everyone knows who he's talking about.

9:18: - I'm not sure that downplaying the Iranian bomb program is working for Biden.

9:15 - Biden: If Republicans had been in charge of sanctions, the rest of the world never would have gone along. I wish Biden had expanded on that.

9:13 - Not sure what happened to the "Mr. Ryan" thing.

9:11 - Raddatz is certainly taking a very different approach than Jim Lehrer did.

9:09 - Biden: "That's a bunch of malarkey." Pretty strong comeback from the veep.

9:06 - On Libya, Biden somber right off the bat. Ryan goes immediately into attack dog mode. A sign of things to come?

9:00 - Programming note: Apparently Martha Raddatz is required to call Paul Ryan "Mr. Ryan" rather than "Congressman Ryan." This was part of the pre-debate negotiations. I gather that Ryan doesn't want to remind anyone that he's a member of one of the most feckless and detested institutions in America.

8:59 - You want a prediction? Here's a prediction: this debate will be more or less a draw. Neither candidate will make any big mistakes, and neither will land any killer blows. Also: neither candidate will really try to get seriously into the weeds. They both know that this isn't where debates are won.

Isn't this a lovely, irenic rose? It comes to you from our backyard, and it's something for everyone to meditate on for the next couple of hours. Relax. Take deep breaths. Lose yourself in the depths of the rose. Relax some more. Soon, grasshopper, you will be ready for tonight's debate.

Earlier this morning I posted a chart from John Sides showing that people didn't perceive Mitt Romney as any more moderate after Wednesday's debate than before. That was interesting, but sort of limited. What I was really curious about was how perceptions of Romney as a person changed. Did he seem more or less honest? More or less energetic? More or less plutocratic? Etc.

Well, John must have been reading my mind, because a few minutes ago he put up a post showing exactly that. Here are the before and after responses among independents for six specific character traits:

This is, obviously, pretty powerful stuff. It doesn't tell us whether these changes were mostly due to the debate performances themselves or to the media coverage afterward, but it certainly shows that perceptions of Romney and Obama shifted fairly dramatically. What's more, as John points out, Romney even gained in people's perceptions of his honesty. The fact that he tossed out so many specific numbers and plans, and tossed them out with confidence and vigor, apparently made people decide that he must be telling the truth.

You can draw your own conclusions from this. On the honesty front, there are two obvious lessons you could take away:

  1. Obama did a lousy job of making Romney's deceptions clear. He needs to double down on calling Romney a liar next week.
  2. Attacking Romney's honesty just doesn't work. No matter how gratifying it might be for us to hear him call Romney a liar, that's not the key to winning the next debate.

My heart says #1 is right, but my head says #2 is right. Viewers just tune out when debates turn into a battle of numbers. The key to success lies elsewhere.

Here's an interesting research tidbit — one that's thankfully not related to politics in any way. You remember the marshmallow test, don't you? Basically, you give kids a marshmallow and tell them they can either eat it now or, if they wait a few minutes, they can have two marshmallows. It turns out that the kids who are able to hold out do better later in life. It's a test of impulse control and delayed gratification, and both those traits are highly useful in modern society.

But hold on. What if you don't trust the researchers? If you don't believe that they really will return with two marshmallows, then there's not much point in showing any restraint, is there? You might as well just eat the marshmallow now. Some sneaky researchers at the University of Rochester decided to test just that, setting up both "reliable" and "unreliable" environments for the kids:

In the unreliable condition, the children were provided a container of used crayons and told that if they could wait, the researcher would return shortly with a bigger and better set of new art supplies for their project. After two and a half minutes, the research returned with this explanation: "I'm sorry, but I made a mistake. We don't have any other art supplies after all. But why don't you use these instead?" She then helped to open the crayon container.

Next a quarter-inch sticker was placed on the table and the child was told that if he or she could wait, the researcher would return with a large selection of better stickers to use. After the same wait, the researcher again returned empty handed.

The marshmallow task followed....

Guess what? When the kids got shafted by the researchers, they all ended up eating the marshmallow. They didn't really believe the extra marshmallow would ever appear. The kids in the reliable environment, where the researchers did what they said they would, mostly waited.

The researchers' conclusion is that self-control isn't a purely innate ability. It also depends on how you were brought up. If things tend to get taken away from you if you don't gobble them up right away, or if adults tend to make promises they don't keep, you're probably not going to be very interested in delayed gratification. In an environment like that, gratification delayed is gratification denied.

Now, despite the strong results these guys got, I'd still like to see their results replicated with different test setups and larger sample sizes. That said, however, this isn't really a counterintuitive finding. Most cognitive traits are combinations of both nature and nurture in one way or another, so it's no surprise that this one is too.

Via Mark Thoma. Video here.

I see that Wolf Blitzer almost managed to get a straight answer out of Mitt Romney a couple of days ago about which deductions he'd eliminate to make up for the $5 trillion in across-the-board tax rate cuts that he's promised. Or, rather, he almost managed to get Romney to take a couple of deductions off the table. "Let's go through how you would do that," Blitzer said. "Specifically, home mortgage deductions, charitable contributions. Are you ready to remove those?" Romney filibustered for a bit and then said:

With regards to the deductions you describe, home mortgage interest deduction and charitable contributions, there will of course continue to be preferences for those types of expenses.

Hmmm. "Preferences" is still a bit weasel wordy, but it sure sounds like he's promising not to touch those items. In other words, he's making his promise of revenue neutrality ever more ridiculous with every passing day. All that's left is for someone to ask him whether he's willing to start taxing healthcare benefits. If he says no, that would pretty much take off the table every single tax expenditure of any serious size. There's just nothing left to balance out his rate cuts for millionaires.