On Talking Points and Joe Biden’s Sixty Facts

by John Mark Reynolds [author, academic]

Presidential and Vice-Presidential “debates” aren’t.

They have nothing to do with executive skills and they are not debates. Both candidates have carefully prepared strategies and both memorize “talking points” which they use in the debates.

For some reason, Sarah Palin is blamed for doing this while Joe Biden is not. Sometimes I think this is merely because she has not accumulated a large enough stock of them or that when she uses them she does not always do so artfully.

Much of media cares more for how one says a thing than for what one actually says.

Did Palin have carefully prepared talking points?

Of course.

Did Biden?


Both repeated lines we have heard for months. Joe Biden adopts the strategy, both on the stump and in debates, of throwing a slew of facts/factoids/assertions (some dubious) into his talking points. This gives him a sense of gravitas, but also runs risks in this kind of format of winning the pundits and losing the audience.

Palin adopted the Reagan approach of sticking to a few general themes that are fleshed out with carefully selected facts.

Palin’s strategy is a good one, while Biden’s is the least apt to do harm. (It was good for Obama in this situation.) Biden’s strategy does have the advantage of giving the false impression of being intellectually nimble.

Both are using talking points, but his ability to move the same set of facts around constantly will be harder to catch as talking points. Pundits love this strategy since they rarely care how difficult the “facts” are to know, or new to the candidate, since they are so overwhelmed by the fact that the candidate uses facts.

Biden and Well Worn Talking Points

Let me give one easy to Google example of a Biden talking point.

Last night Biden said:

So what you had is you had overwhelming “deregulation.” You had actually the belief that Wall Street could self-regulate itself. And while Barack Obama was talking about reinstating those regulations, John on 20 different occasions in the previous year and a half called for more deregulation. As a matter of fact, John recently wrote an article in a major magazine saying that he wants to do for the health care industry deregulate it and let the free market move like he did for the banking industry.

Of course, part of this is very misleading regarding McCain’s statement in an article. As FactCheck says, “the full context reveals that McCain was referring narrowly to his proposal to allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines.” Second, you will note that this line appears in an ad from 9/22.

It is also a common Biden “fact” and talking point. A quick Google reveals Biden was using this identical talking point in a speech on September 17:

Earlier Wednesday, Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden blasted McCain on the subject. Biden drew parallels between McCain’s statements about the economy and the GOP candidate’s health care plan, saying McCain favors deregulation that wouldn’t allow states to protect residents from insurance companies.

“So John, you got back on the same horse, you continue to push a plan that’s designed to deregulate the health insurance industry,” said Biden, asking people in the crowd to raise their hands if they trust insurance companies to take care of their needs.

“I got one person [who] raised their hand. I got also a bridge I got to sell you and guess what? It’s in Alaska, and it goes to nowhere.”

The senator from Delaware told supporters they have a choice between those who allow corporations and the wealthy to go “unfettered” and those who want “common sense rules” to protect transparency.

Biden said McCain is more “out of touch” on the current financial turmoil than any other issue.

You will notice that Biden even recycled has joke about the “bridge to nowhere” last night:

So you’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the “Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”

His “champ story” from last night is well worn.

Let’s take a foreign policy example.

Senator Biden said on September 30:

“Under the policies George Bush has pursued and John McCain would continue, Iran, not freedom, has been on the march. Iran is much closer to the [nuclear] bomb; its influence in Iraq is expanding; its terrorist proxy Hezbollah is ascendant in Lebanon; its ally, Hamas controls Gaza and launches rockets at Israel. Beyond bluster, what would John McCain actually do about these dangers? He doesn’t say.”

Biden simply scattered these same prepared talking points around the debate:

“The fact of the matter is, the policy of this administration has been an abject failure.”

“And speaking of freedom being on the march, the only thing on the march is Iran. It’s closer to a bomb. Its proxies now have a major stake in Lebanon, as well as in the Gaza Strip with Hamas. And speaking of freedom being on the march, the only thing on the march is Iran.”

Of course this came after Biden misspoke:

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.”

This is just wrong. Syria was removed from Lebanon and not Hezbollah.

I am not taking issue with Biden using talking points, but with those who oppose Palin because she uses “talking points” or “relies on talking points.” Senator Biden almost always does as well . . . and when he veers off them, then he often Quayles himself. The good news for Biden is that he has been around so long . . . that all his mistakes are put down to “gas baggery” or some other amusing problem while Palin’s putative errors or reliance of talking points suggest (the horror!) she is “an empty pants suit.”

The Sixty Facts

Biden says facts matter.

Some are swooning over his command of details, but let me suggest (and it is no insult) that Biden has mastered sounding like he is giving a great many details while giving self-referential ones, ones he has used over and over again, blanket assertions, or by giving utterly obvious facts to fill out his sentences.

In all his talking points regarding foreign policy, how many “facts” or “details” were there really? How commanding a sense of the world does it show he has?

Let me try to list all the details Biden mentions (I will be generous) regarding foreign policy in his answers. (I have tried to correct this several times to be as generous as possible to Biden. Please let me know if I have missed any facts.)

Read them with care. Ask yourself how many are truly impressive and how many are assertions that are common knowledge, a talking point Obama also used, or don’t really go any place (a fact for facts sake):

1. “trying to get something done about the genocide in — that was going on in Bosnia.”

2. “We have 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of the oil in the world.”

3. “China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week. It’s polluting not only the atmosphere but the West Coast of the United States.”

4. “I was talking about exporting that technology to China so when they burn their dirty coal, it won’t be as dirty, it will be clean.”

5-8. The Obama-Biden Plan:

5. Shift responsibility to Iraqis over the next 16 months. 6. Draw down our combat troops. 7. Ironically the same plan that Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq and George Bush are now negotiating. . . . 8. You’ve got to have a time line to draw down the troops and shift responsibility to the Iraqis.

9. “We’re spending $10 billion a month while Iraqis have an $80 billion surplus.”

10. “Barack says it’s time for them to spend their own money and have the 400,000 military we trained for them begin to take their own responsibility and gradually over 16 months, withdrawal.”

11. “$600 million that I had gotten to get MRAPS, those things that are protecting the governor’s son and pray god my son and a lot of other sons and daughters.”

12-15. On McCain being wrong about the war:

12. John McCain and Dick Cheney said while I was saying we would not be greeted as liberators, we would not – 13. this war would take a decade and not a day, not a week and not six months, we would not be out of there quickly. 14. John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shias got along with each other without reading the history of the last 700 years. 15. John McCain said there would be enough oil to pay for this. . . . There are the facts.

16-19. On Pakistan and Iran:

16. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. 17. Pakistan already has deployed nuclear weapons. 18. Pakistan’s weapons can already hit Israel and the Mediterranean. 19. They (Iran) are more than – they are not close to getting a nuclear weapon that’s able to be deployed.

20-23. On Terror:

20. John continues to tell us that the central war in the front on terror is in Iraq. 21. I promise you, if an attack comes in the homeland, it’s going to come as our security services have said, it is going to come from al Qaeda planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. 21. b. That’s where they live. 21.c. That’s where they are. 21. d. That’s where it will come from. 22. There have been 7,000 madrasses built along that border. 23. . . . that’s where bin Laden lives and we will go at him if we have actionable intelligence.

24. This is simply not true about Barack Obama. He did not say sit down with Ahmadinejad.

25-29. On McCain and Diplomacy:

25. Senator McCain doesn’t realize that Ahmadinejad does not control the security apparatus in Iran. The theocracy controls the security apparatus, number one. 26. Number two, five secretaries of state did say we should talk with and sit down. 26. b. Our friends and allies have been saying, Gwen, “Sit down. Talk. Talk. Talk.” Our friends and allies have been saying that, five secretaries of state, three of them Republicans. 27. And look what President Bush did. After five years, he finally sent a high-ranking diplomat to meet with the highest-ranking diplomats in Iran, in Europe, to try to work out an arrangement. 28. Our allies are on that same page. 29. John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago he wouldn’t even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now.

30-35. On Israel:

30. In fairness to Secretary Rice, she’s trying to turn it around now in the seventh or eighth year. 31. He insisted on elections on the West Bank, when I said, and others said, and Barack Obama said, “Big mistake. Hamas will win. You’ll legitimize them.” 32. What happened? Hamas won. 33. When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, . . . 34. 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.” 35. Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.

36-38. On Iran

36. It’s closer to a bomb. 37. Its proxies now have a major stake in Lebanon, 38. as well as in the Gaza Strip with Hamas.

39-43. On Afghanistan and Other Stuff:

39. The fact is that our commanding general in Afghanistan said today that a surge — the surge principles used in Iraq will not — 39. b. well, let me say this again now — our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principle in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan, not Joe Biden, our commanding general in Afghanistan. 40. He said we need more troops. 41. We need government-building. 42. We need to spend more money on the infrastructure in Afghanistan. 43. Look, we have spent more money — we spend more money in three weeks on combat in Iraq than we spent on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan building that country. 43. b. Let me say that again. Three weeks in Iraq; seven years, seven years or six-and-a-half years in Afghanistan. Now, that’s number one.

44-46. On Arms Control

44. John McCain voted against a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty that every Republican has supported. 45. John McCain has opposed amending the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty with an amendment to allow for inspections. 46. Barack Obama, first thing he did when he came to the United States Senate, new senator, reached across the aisle to my colleague, Dick Lugar, a Republican, and said, “We’ve got to do something about keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.” They put together a piece of legislation that, in fact, was serious and real. 44. b. Every major — I shouldn’t say every — on the two at least that I named, I know that John McCain has been opposed to extending the arms control regime in the world.

47-49. Rebuttal:

39. b. our commanding general did say that. 47. The fact of the matter is that again, I’ll just put in perspective, while Barack and I and Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar have been calling for more money to help in Afghanistan, more troops in Afghanistan, 48. John McCain was saying two years ago quote, “The reason we don’t read about Afghanistan anymore in the paper, it’s succeeded. 49. Barack Obama was saying we need more troops there. 43. c. Again, we spend in three weeks on combat missions in Iraq, more than we spent in the entire time. . .

50-55. On Interventions:

1. a. I admit I was the first one to recommend it. 50. They saved tens of thousands of lives. 51. And initially John McCain opposed it along with a lot of other people. But the end result was it worked. Look what we did in Bosnia. 52. We took Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, being told by everyone, I was told by everyone that this would mean that they had been killing each other for a thousand years, it would never work. 53. There’s a relatively stable government there now as in Kosovo. 54. With regard to Iraq, I indicated it would be a mistake to — I gave the president the power. I voted for the power because he said he needed it not to go to war but to keep the United States, the UN in line, to keep sanctions on Iraq and not let them be lifted. 55. I, along with Dick Lugar, before we went to war, said if we were to go to war without our allies, without the kind of support we need, we’d be there for a decade and it’d cost us tens of billions of dollars. 13. b. John McCain said, no, it was going to be OK.

56-60. On Sudan:

56. We can now impose a no-fly zone. It’s within our capacity. 57. We can lead NATO if we’re willing to take a hard stand. 58. We can, I’ve been in those camps in Chad. 59. I’ve seen the suffering, thousands and tens of thousands have died and are dying. We should rally the world to act and demonstrate it by our own movement to provide the helicopters to get the 60. 21,000 forces of the African Union in there now to stop this genocide.

Whatever the merits as debate strategy, it seems impressive at first to work 60 facts about foreign policy into this debate!

But how impressive is it?

Very few require any special foreign policy expertise. . . they seem more impressive because Biden is older and lists so many of them.

(”Were you aware there are fifty states? Were you also aware that the Albany, and not New York City, is capitol of New York State, the Empire State? New York City is a center of commerce and banking. Let me repeat what many people don’t realize: Albany is the center of New York’s finances, including such banking giants as Chase. In 1942 I visited New York City and talked to a banker about . . . “) If one learns to throw in a bill or detail that most people do not know, then the paragraph is even more impressive . . . even if some of it is false.

Biden is a master of this technique. Many are staples of Biden’s stump answers to questions . . .well polished over the years.

Most of Biden’s “Foreign Policy Facts” fit five basic categories (with overlap):

Category One : The Moderator Question that Referred to His Past Foreign Policy Views (11 facts):

One way Senator Biden was able to inflate his total came through a question that he received asking him to defend his own foreign policy positions over the past. Facts 50-60 were essential freebies given to him by the moderator. They are no more impressive than if Governor Palin had known the details of her gas pipe line deal (with the moderator did NOT ask about). In fact there were few details in his summary of the situations in the Balkans and Africa that showed any expertise on the issue. Biden has been in office a long time and he was essentially asked to defend (as he has been many times before) his old positions. He can use standard Biden talking points he has used before so it required no remarkable intelligence to “replay the tape.”

While there is nothing wrong with this, a moment’s thought would keep one from swooning over how impressive it all is.

Notice sixteen percent of his “impressive” mastery of foreign policy detail came from this one freebie from the moderator.

Category Two: Opposition Research on John McCain’s Views (@10 facts)

I count roughly ten of Biden’s details as being a repetition of common Obama talking points about McCain.

To be blunt: one does not have to be Henry Kissinger in the Senate to do that.

Category Three: A Prepared Statement About a General and His Views on Afghanistan (39-42):

Four of Biden’s assertions were about his understanding of what a commander said the day of the debate. It could not show any particular mastery of anything but what he and his handlers decided would be fresh and work in the debate. No special “experience” or knowledge was needed to produce a talking point based on the day’s paper.

Category Four: Wrong (4), Common Facts (3), Self-Referential (@11), Mere Assertions (@4):

Biden was wrong in 29 (as I have noted) to flatly assert that McCain would never meet with the leader of Spain. He was wrong about Lebanon (33) and he was wrong about what Obama said regarding Iran. Most Republicans did not support the nuclear treaty Biden referenced (44). In fact, a majority killed it.

16, 17, and 36 are common knowledge.

1, 4, 10, 11, 31, 34, 47, 49, 53, 54, 55 (at least) are statements about Biden or about things Biden (or Obama) has said. They reflect no particular wisdom other than living a long time in the Senate on Biden’s part and remembering what he has said.

54 for example is a restatement (and a selective one) of things Biden said before voting for the War. It requires no special insight or knowledge to recall it. Since Biden voted for the War resolution, his stated “reservations” about the War beforehand sound a good bit like the “out” that most clever politicians leave themselves when they support anything.

Remembering them does not make a man Solon.

Just as I don’t think Palin recalling a (recent) conversation with Henry Kissinger is actually a sign of anything much (I get the strategy in saying it), so I do not think mentioning chats with his friend from Indiana tell us anything about Sentor Biden.

8, 19, 30, 36 sound like facts but are more assertions.

This category, almost 40% of the total, should impress nobody.

Category Five: Interesting Facts or Things Biden Actually Did That Show Accomplishments (11)

By my count 2, 3, 7, 10, 19, 23, 24, 32, 34, 35, and 43 can plausibly be seen as things Senator Biden did or knows that show special experience or expertise. Outside of his African experience none are particular impressive . . . and some (2, 3 on energy) have a “Jeopardy facts” quality. Still, I have tried to be charitable.

I am left to conclude that Senator Joe Biden made at least four errors in his foreign policy presentation and said at most about 11 things that were true, relevant, and showed some “special knowledge.”

This strategy will nearly always produce a “victory” in snap polls as it deeply impresses people . . . but it often turns them off as well. Governor Palin went a different route . . . as Reagan did and I think was wise to do so.

In any case, we should not be overwhelmed by Senator Biden’s fitness to command based on his 60 debate facts. As a matter of fact, due to his lack of executive experience of any kind (public or private), I think it an open question what kind of leader Biden would be. He was overwhelmingly rejected twice by Democratic primary voters for the top slot in their primaries.

Just as the Couric failure “proved” little about Governor Palin, so the 60 facts prove almost nothing about Senator Biden.

I can find little evidence (books written, articles with keen insights regarding overarching strategy) that show Senator Biden to be anything other than a mediocre but enduring US Senator. Unlike Palin, there is no record of outstanding executive success to balance this picture.

Biden would know the machinery and players in Washington. Is he a leader? How would I know?

I hope so. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.His personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and his blog can be found at http://scriptoriumdaily.com.

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