Jonathan Chait and Ramesh Ponnuru on the Veep Debate and the Election Morning After

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty and Corbis

Today in Instant Politics — in which a range of writers, pundits, politicians, and thinkers discuss the 2012 race for Daily Intel — New York’s Jonathan Chait and the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru talk about tonight’s vice-presidential debate and what the morning after Election Day will mean for the Republican party.

Jon: Welcome, Ramesh, to our chat. Never before has so much brilliance been contained in one Gchat since Thomas Jefferson Gchatted alone.

Ramesh: Hi, Jon. Nice to know we’re not going to be constrained by fact-checkers here.

Jon: Good point! Speaking of which, I haven’t seen your movie yet. Sorry.

Ramesh: So, so mean.

Jon: I should insert, for our confused readers, a FACT CHECK: Ramesh Ponnuru and Dinesh D’Souza are actually different people.

Ramesh: I’m the young, attractive, sensible one.

Jon: Pants on fire. Wait, I’ll give you “partly true.” You are attractive.

Ramesh: This is degenerating. Let’s talk about the presidential race.

Jon: You’ll find chat with me always degenerate. But fine.

Ramesh: Have you joined the liberal freak-out yet?

Jon: I’m not there yet. I think Obama has lost most or all of his national lead but still has a pretty strong position in the battlegrounds. Relying on Ohio to save America is not a good feeling for me, though.

Ramesh: Oh right, I had forgotten your vendetta with that state. It stole your girlfriend once or something?

Jon: I am from Michigan. Like Mitt Romney!

Ramesh: I think I’d still put Obama slightly ahead of Romney, too. Romney needs for North Carolina and another state or two to come off the table before Election Day.

Jon: Do you remember Karl Rove’s 3-2-1 plan? The idea was that North Carolina, Indiana, and Virginia would automatically swing back to the GOP, as a kind of precondition. It was odd how many people thought that made sense. Virginia and North Carolina are pretty obviously growing more Democratic relative to the rest of the country.

Ramesh: I still think Romney will win all three of those states. But he can’t go into the election needing to win every state that’s up for grabs.

Jon: Exactly.

Ramesh: And while I can see possible paths to victory for Romney without Ohio, they seem unlikely.

Jon: Let’s game that scenario out a bit, and then maybe we can discuss a potential Romney win. What is the conversation like the morning after the election if Romney narrowly loses? I mean, the conversation on the right.

Ramesh: I think the dominant view on the right — which is not to say the view I will agree with in this scenario — will be that Republicans failed in two presidential elections in a row by running moderates. “Purity worked in 2010” will be the theory, and it can work again.

Jon: That is always the Republican analysis. But will there be more dissenters to it this time? I am sensing a little more openness to the notion of moving to the center — at least on immigration, for instance. Because if Obama wins, runaway Latino margins will probably be the reason.

Ramesh: I see immigration as the issue where there will be the most willingness on the part of Republicans to rethink, because conservatives themselves are still split on the issue. On the other hand, I don’t see much rethinking going on on taxes. Perhaps most relevant to what the next couple of years look like, I don’t think Republicans — especially if they gain Senate seats and hold the House, as looks very likely — are going to conclude that the public sided with Obama on the big issues, and they need to get with the program.

Jon: I think it’s obviously the case that the Democratic advantage on taxes is the biggest policy impediment the GOP faces, as it identifies the GOP as the party of the rich. But I also don’t see any willingness to change that. And there’s a reason: Keeping taxes low for the rich is, for a powerful segment of Republican elites, the driving impetus of politics. You compromise on your tertiary issues in order to win on your main issue. You don’t compromise on the primary issue.

Ramesh: I recently wrote that even if Romney won, his 20 percent across-the-board tax cut would probably fall by the wayside. Too big a lift, I think, given all the other things he would have to do early in his term. I take it you don’t agree.

Jon: I don’t agree, no. People said that Bush would have to compromise on his tax-cut plan in 2001. He didn’t. And then he passed a second and even more regressive one in 2003 as soon as he had the political capital to do it. I don’t see the party as having changed its fundamental commitment to scaling back the upper-income tax burden. If they had, they wouldn’t be dragging this political millstone around all election.

Ramesh: Getting to the right of McCain on tax cuts helped Bush win the 2000 primaries. This time around, Romney’s tax-cut plan was a dud. My strong sense is that the party’s base is less interested in it than it used to be. Also, Bush actually campaigned on his tax cut in the general election. Romney didn’t even mention his 20 percent plan in his convention speech.

Jon: Actually (and I researched this), McCain’s promise to pay down the debt first was more popular among Republicans than was Bush’s tax-cut message in 2000. Bush was aiming his tax-cut plan at party elites, who were deeply threatened by McCain’s attempt to reorient the party toward fiscal conservatism and away from tax cuts Über alles.

Ramesh: Right, it was one of the things that caused some conservative elites to side with Bush over McCain. Didn’t do anything similar for Romney.

Jon: Yes, but Romney had to pledge fealty to the tax-cut agenda in order to neutralize elite Republican opposition. Do you think those elites would have less sway over Romney if he wins? Seems to me he’s more free now than he ever will be.

Ramesh: I think he would have won the primaries without the tax-cut plan. And if a Senate majority depends on Scott Brown and Susan Collins — or if there isn’t one — I doubt it gets through.

Jon: Possibly right. Though note that Senate Democrats voted for Bush’s tax cuts in 2000. The Senate overrepresents red states, and Democrats stay competitive by giving their members wide latitude to break from the party. Very different than the Republican approach of enforcing strict discipline, even if it loses them some seats.

Ramesh: One big question for Jon: How does the next debt-ceiling increase get passed? Having trouble seeing it.

Jon: Which president is in office here?

Ramesh: Either one is going to have a hard time.

Jon: If Romney’s in office, it goes back to the old system of automatic raises coupled with scolding speeches about the debt from the opposition. If Obama’s in office — well, I have a long feature coming out next week gaming out this whole thing.

Ramesh: DeMint is not going to settle for a scolding speech, and he’ll bring a significant number of Republican votes with him. Meanwhile, I assume a lot of Democrats, if Romney wins, [will] go back to the old model of an opposition party voting against any debt-limit increase.

Jon: Maybe the conservatives use the debt ceiling as leverage to force Romney to a more pure version of the Ryan plan. Senate Democrats are not going to use the debt ceiling as a hostage. I am certain of that.

Ramesh: We should probably talk a little about the veep debate coming up tonight. Looking forward to it?

Jon: No. I think it will be brutal. Paul Ryan is just perfectly suited for this, and Biden is not. I’m predicting a massacre.

Ramesh: Lowering expectations! I think Obama set Biden up in the worst possible way. It’s not just that he lost but that he didn’t hit hard on entitlements — leaving it to Biden to make the case against the Republican best equipped to respond. On the other hand, do you think Biden will best Ryan on foreign policy?

Jon: I’m not sure entitlements is the most fertile area for Biden to attack. I think it’s taxes, to repeat a theme. I don’t think foreign policy will be emphasized, because neither party thinks it can win on it. But Ryan is very good at this — better than Romney. Much more earnest-seeming.

Ramesh: It sure seemed as though Democrats thought foreign policy was a winner for them in Charlotte. And I suspect Biden thinks it’s a great advantage he has over Ryan.

Jon: You may be right — Biden certainly cares about foreign policy a great deal. So he may make his own decision on that.

Ramesh: To return to your point about taxes versus entitlements, I think the Democratic attack probably works best when they’re linked. That is, when they say the Republicans are cutting entitlements to cut taxes for the rich.

Jon: Absolutely agree. And the math problem in Ryan’s tax plan is worse than the math problem in Romney’s. But Romney evaded the trap by just insisting he wouldn’t do what even his campaign admits he will do: cut taxes for the rich. That’s a hard point to nail down in a verbal debate. It’s not like Biden can quote and hyperlink.

It comes down to who seems more genuine and certain about it. And Ryan will win that fight. Probably.

Ramesh: I thought that what Romney was denying was that his tax plan would reduce the rich’s share of the income tax burden. If I read him right, I don’t think his campaign has contradicted that. In any case, I think the 47 percent fiasco is harder for Ryan to dodge — and will surely come up tonight.

Jon: Well, since nobody will engage this point that I’ve made obsessively, let me get you, since you’re a captive audience. Romney said: “I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans.” His own campaign says that his plan WILL cut taxes on the rich, but that some of the cost will be offset by faster growth and/or counting the repeal of Obamacare against it. Their argument is that the math does add up, which I dispute, but their argument concedes that he does cut taxes for the rich.

[Several minutes pass.]

You’re gone! Ramesh is gone! He’s fled the premises!

Ramesh: Sorry, got a phone call from my wife.

Jon: Pants on fire.

Ramesh: I guess I’ll need to check the record, but my impression is that the campaign and the debater were on the same page in asserting that reduced tax breaks would pay for almost all of the rate cuts. One interesting question, it seems to me, though, is the relative effects on the near-rich and the truly rich. It seems to me that any tax reform of the type Romney has described has got to be a much better deal for people making, say, $1 million than for people making $300,000.

That is, you can’t possibly reduce breaks enough to make up for a rate cut at the highest end of the income spectrum. So a lot depends on where you set the cutoff for “rich.”

Jon: That’s true, but under the definition the two sides agreed on — $250,000 a year — Romney said he would NOT provide a tax cut, but his campaign concedes he would. Time for another “phone call from your wife”!

Ramesh: My point, though, is that even if that’s true in the sense that average tax rates on all people making more than $250K would stay the same — which I don’t think the campaign has denied — average tax rates would have to rise for people just above that line and fall for people way above it.

I don’t especially care about this distributional issue, but the politics are interesting.

Jon: I agree that, in addition to providing a net tax cut for those making over $250,000 as a whole, Romney’s plan would redistribute the burden within that group downward, from the incredibly rich to the affluent. But the difficulty I have in pinning you down on this shows the difficulty of pinning it down in a debate. You’re way more honest than a candidate, and this format is way harder to wriggle out of questions than a televised debate with an impatient moderator.

And yet …

Ramesh: My hope is that, at some point in the next few weeks, liberals move from making excuses for poor debate performances to making excuses for losing the election.

Jon: Do you think liberals are making excuses? I think they’re either furious at Obama or concede he’s a mediocre debater or think Romney is just really good at it.

Ramesh: It depends. Hypoxia was an excuse. “He’s just too brazen a liar” was another one. I think I even read someone saying Obama was just too weighed down by the responsibilities of being commander in chief.

Jon: Well, that was the campaign’s initial line, but I don’t think anybody took it seriously. Anyway! We’ve gone over our time limit. It’s been fun.

Ramesh: Thanks. Always a pleasure. Let’s do this again after Romney wins.

Chait and Ponnuru on the Veep Debate