In 1858, the Illinois senatorial contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A Douglas was occasioned by the most spectacular debates between the two men, that to this day resonate with passion and intellect and remain a focus of intense study. The arguments were carefully constructed, the rebuttals pointed and clarifying, the respect for each other’s opinion profound. The very discussion centered not on winning or losing the election, but entirely on winning or losing the argument, for each man knew that nation was listening, and contemplating, the immense import of the topics on the nation’s future, and which set of guiding principles should reign supreme. It was brilliant, vitally important theater.
The 2012 Vice Presidential debate between Mr. Biden and Mr. Ryan – not so much.
Its not as if the topics were of any less significant to the survival of the nation. The continuing foment of radical Islamic terrorism despite 2 wars, thousands of lives lost, and a trillion spent in national treasure to attempt to defeat this fundamental threat to our civilization. The burgeoning debt of the primary economic stabilizer and guarantor of freedom of the world, the United States, as the debt spirals past 100% of GDP, increases at the rate of a trillion dollars a year, and is progressively beholden to foreign powers. The rise of the threat of thermonuclear war in the Middle East. The fundamental argument of whose version of interpretation will prevail as to the founding principles of this nation.
The issues were indeed profound, but television allowed the hostage taking of the event by one of the participants into the theater of the absurd. Instead of the solemnity and probity expected of such daunting issues, the Vice President of the United States, Mr. Biden, determined we were to be treated to a national version of the typical discourse we see on the Judge Judy show. As if he were the jilted girlfriend of a wayward relationship, we were treated to a hyper emotional, bordering on hysterical, cacophony of forced laughter, guffaws, cat ate the bird grins, feigned outrage, and dismissive smirks that Judge Judy producers would be hard pressed to achieve from their hyperbolic participants. In between the clownish behavior the Vice President managed to treat facts and fabrications like long lost brothers invited as equals in Mr. Biden’s version of the world. He proclaimed the administration had no knowledge of the reduced security presence in Benghazi, Libya that led to the most successful terrorist raid on an American dominion since 9/11/2001 and the murder of the American ambassador, despite his own state department stating the exact contrary the day before in Congressional hearings. He declared the tax policy of the administration to represent tax increases on millionaires and reductions for everyone else, in the face of the repeated demarcation line at 250,000 and up in every campaign declaration. He insisted the difference between the restraint required in Syria and the active intervention undertaken by his administration in Libya is the need to understand that Syria is five times as big and population half as large as Libya, when the exact opposite is the reality. He dismissed any concern for the administration’s policy in achieving a brake on Iran’s intentions to become a thermonuclear power, as saying it is not about how much fissile material for making bombs Iran accumulates, its about preventing the bomb casing – a change in decades of nuclear proliferation policy that is bound to have the mullahs of Tehran doing handsprings. Too many distortions, too many outright fabrications to go on contemplating to any sensical end.
In the face of such nonsense, the opponent in a debate has two choices. He or she can attempt to aggressively respond to each fabrication, leading to what appears to be argumentative violence and noise rather than debate, or simply sit back and watch the prevaricator to be hoisted upon their own petard. Mr.Ryan accepted the second course, and as the days unfold from the event, this may prove to be the better course. Each Biden petard is showing a slow fuse to progressive damage as the light of the facts stray into the nonsensical framework of Mr. Biden’s so called arguments. Mr. Ryan, who has spent his professional life framing the discussion of difficult topics into extended logical reconstructions, was out of his league in trying to convert the debate into a battle of bombastic flame throwing, and was smart enough to recognize it.
So Mr. Biden was clownish, bombastic, and time and again prevaricating – so what? The dismal reality of such debating behavior and personality display is that this individual is Vice President of the United States, one tragic moment from being the most powerful executive in the world. The issues to be adjudicated are of fundamental import to the future of the United States, not whose most at fault for the lack of garbage pick up in the 8th city ward in Chicago. It has been said by President Roosevelt’s Vice President John Nance Gardner that the role of the Vice Presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm p**s.” For that, in Mr. Biden’s case, we can be thankful.
Unfortunately, it is the damage to the tradition of careful choice of words, crafting of arguments, and recognition that what you say has great import on the national and world stage, when you are representing your country at its highest offices. Lincoln and Douglas knew that. Webster and Calhoun knew that. Kennedy and Nixon knew that. It appears from Thursday’s debate, that only Mr. Ryan knew that. We are diminished as a nation and a culture when the tools of democracy are used by a leader to promote a theater of the absurd, and attempt to appeal to our most base instincts, instead of our most fervent aspirations.