It is fair to say there were some of us who were willing to give John McCain the benefit of the doubt in 2008. He seemed principled. He seemed to have good intentions. He seemed to stand for things. He seemed ready to oppose things deleterious to our great democracy like SuperPacs and soft money in politics.
However, It is also true that according to some leading figures on both sides of the political spectrum, you can easily trace the downward tailspin of the Republican effort that year from the moment that an apparently unhinged Alaskan separatist became their team’s main substitution in the event that their somewhat elderly (with respect) contender should take ill while in office, horrifying the nation’s voters to their senses.
We do not often think about it, but VP choices can make or break campaigns, as well they should more often (imagine Dan Quayle with his finger on the button?). This is one of the reasons why all eyes were on this year’s vice presidential debate, especially with the comparatively poor performance by the president in the first faceoff between himself and Romney, and the perceived cool unflappability of his running mate Paul Ryan versus the affably gaffe-prone current number two, Joe Biden. And this is one of the reasons why armchair pundits on both sides are still talking about it, persistently chasing a definitive victory claim. Chances are that it will be forgotten by Wednesday morning with the two contenders for the top job having slugged it out over foreign policies, but there are still a few significant points about this debate that are well worth noting.
I saw the debate with the Democrats Abroad, in a special screening here in London two days after the event, so like the self-respecting politics junkie that I am during election season, I devoured all the reviews from Fox to Mother Jones in hopes of getting some picture of what the debate was like and, perhaps more importantly, what the nation’s reaction was. In much of the US media, Biden was criticized for his “in-your-face” aggressive style, which pundits had said may have been counterproductive to his and Obama’s efforts. I read that he was rude, loud and kept interrupting and rolling his eyes. My heart sank because, being a democrat and knowing what I knew from the reports in the week prior, I knew we needed a decisive win to feel even slightly at ease with a comfortable win.
It was evident from reports that Biden had not scored that decisive win and that there were many who found that Biden’s style was off-putting. So I went into this special screening with a heavy heart expecting Biden to bluster in and charge around like an aggressive animal. I sat down in a darkened theater watching the debate and I kept looking for it. And I looked for it. And I looked for it some more. The more I watched the debate the more I asked myself the same question: How could anyone have thought that Ryan won this confrontation? The next question? In what single moment in the debate did Joe Biden do anything rude, ignorant, or beyond the terms of a political engagement of this magnitude?
For a nation that the world thinks is aggressive, we certainly seem to like our politicians to be pretty timid and reserved. Biden’s style was energetic. He was full of zeal. And he was human. Ryan was cardboard and looked uncomfortable. With what did viewers take issue?
Let’s compare with the kind of healthy and energetic exchange you might see in The House of Commons during the weekly event of Prime Minister’s Questions, when the leader of the opposition and other notable political figures pose questions to the PM with the overt goal of taking apart his policy decisions and exposing them as wrong-headed, weak and generally railroading the nation towards a path of destruction. It’s an incredibly useful tool for continuing to scrutinize the government’s decisions.
Have a look at this one from January of this year in which the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, accuses the prime minister of complacency over the economy:
Note they have to shout to be heard and there is a joy about the robust exchange of ideas and in part, invective, so long as that invective is aimed in the direction of a policy or terrible decision of some kind that affects the public in a pretty awful way.
Compared to Miliband and Cameron on an average day, Biden was a pussycat. In the context of American political debate, he wasn’t. In the context of American political debate, he was more of a fire breathing dragon, but his style certainly wasn’t “mean”, “rude” or uncalled for.
When I watched David Dimbleby, the great national treasure and BBC presenter, hosting John Bolton on his coverage of the 2008 election, they switched briefly to a reporter doing some vox pop at one state’s Republican HQ. The reporter had managed to rile up one of the Republicans in charge and when they flashed back to the studio, we were presented with Bolton in great state of umbrage over the way the impromptu interview had been conducted saying the Beeb’s reporter should be ashamed of himself, to which Dimbleby, very dryly replied, “It was a spirited interview,” which succinctly shut Bolton up, thankfully.
It strikes me that Biden had more to say, as is borne out with an actual examination of the words of the debate and it strikes me that the debate was an entertaining, “spirited” exchange of ideas. I just don’t think Paul Ryan had the spirit.