The US vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan was instructive for all the wrong reasons. It showed up some things about the modern style of Democratic politics. Increasingly the hallmark of the Left in the United States is shrill abuse. Often times that can indicate weakness in position, as in when under threat, shout loudly.
Here is Tim Stanley's take on the debate and its larger historical context on the emerging style of Democratic politics.
Joe Biden interrupted Paul Ryan 82 times in 90 minutes. The Democrats have become the rude party
By Tim Stanley
Last updated: October 12th, 2012
No one’s denying that Joe Biden delivered the more energetic performance in Thursday’s vice presidential debate. He interrupted Paul Ryan 82 times in 90 minutes. Yet some polls say that Ryan won and many pundits are calling it a draw. How come?
Two reasons. First, deconstruct the Biden bluster and some of what he said was nonsensical. In the first 10 minutes alone, Joe insisted that the US intelligence community was wrong on Libya but trustworthy on Iran. He claimed that the staff at the Benghazi embassy didn’t want extra security when lots of sources say that they begged for it. He seemed to rule out war with Iran under any circumstances, which would remove America’s one bargaining chip. As political klutzes go, Biden is to talking what Gerald Ford was to walking.
More importantly, Biden was rude. Perhaps he was trying to emulate Romney’s dominant performance from the week before. But where Romney was commanding, Biden was just insulting. The most damning moments came when the camera went split screen. On the right was Ryan trying to make a serious point about world peace. On the left was Biden laughing. The Vice President’s performance will doubtless rally the party faithful and give them a few applause lines to live off through to November. But it’s hard to imagine independents warming to these theatrics.
The Democrats have made the classic mistake of thinking that what they want to see is what everyone else wants to see. This isn’t peculiar to the Obama/Biden ticket but part of a long-term evolution. Back in 2000, Al Gore huffed and puffed his way angrily through a presidential debate and possibly cost his party the election. The Democrats ought to have learned from that, but the narrative that Bush “stole” 2000 only upped their ire.
After the Iraq War, the liberal Left began to regard itself as the conscience of America and to confuse reason with fury. In 2004, the Democrat base was infiltrated by a new generation of online activists – the so-called Deaniacs. Just as the internet is criticised generally for being a place where ferocious opinions are validated rather than challenged, so Howard Dean’s supporters lived in a cyberspace of their own, fuelled by disgust with Bush. They rallied around Dean because he was the most righteous and furious candidate in the race. His infamous yell at the New Hampshire primary heralded a new kind of confrontational, take-no-prisoners politics.
The Dean revolution became the basis for the 2006 mid-term landslide and for the Obama campaign. Of course, during this period politics as a whole deteriorated. Tea Party folks shouted down congressmen and Republicans questioned the patriotism of their Democratic colleagues. The 2012 GOP primaries was one of the ugliest electoral cycles yet, throwing out Reagan’s commandment not to speak evil of a fellow Republican.
But the difference between the two parties is that when it comes to election time, the Republicans are more disciplined (disciplined to the point of boring). Compare the two party conventions. The Tea Party and the Paulites were excluded from the GOP convention hall, both having to throw parties elsewhere. The messages from the speakers were low-key, patriotic, centrist, calm. The old conservative favourites of abortion and gay marriage were hardly mentioned at all. The Republicans seemed determined not to cause offence.
By contrast, the Democratic convention felt like a circus thrown by the Frankfurt School. Speaker after speaker angrily denounced the Republicans for a “war on women” and did their best to define themselves as a populist majority. Their success or failure is a matter of taste, but what could not be doubted was that this was a partisan, ideologically liberal event with no sense of shame about it. It was the victory of the Deaniac model of Democratic activism – shout and cajole your way to victory – and a victory for those, like Dean, who long argued that the Democrats would only win by being true to themselves.
And the speech that Biden delivered in Denver was identical in tone and talking points to his debate performance on Thursday – full of emotional personal stories, hard attacks on the Republicans and mockery for conservative positions. On Thursday, he even tried to define Catholicism as the crusade for social justice. For the record, he’s half right. But he needs to look up the word “subsidiarity” to see what Catholics think about big government.
Anger has a good heritage in American liberalism. William Jennings Bryan was angry about the cross of gold. Roosevelt was angry about poverty. Jesse Jackson was angry about racism. But there’s a thin line between the politics of anger and the reduction of the public sphere to ugliness. Biden may have crossed it.
It’ll be interesting to see over the weekend how his performance is defined – and in the next few weeks how it is remembered. It’s likely that the Democrats will endlessly recycle it on YouTube, returning to it like a necessary shot of political caffeine. But the wider public might find it a turn off. The Democrats are at risk of becoming vulgar.