By Steven Greenhut | Franklin Center
Vice President Joe Biden’s smirking, clownish demeanor in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate against Paul Ryan has been the main source of commentary overnight and Friday, drowning out meaningful debates about public policy and leading to discussions mainly about how swing voters might react to such rudeness.
Biden infuriated me even when he made points with which I agreed, mainly regarding foreign policy and the need to avoid war in Iran. It infuriated my 20-year-old daughter, and she is far less sympathetic to Republicans than I am. My snap analysis: this will hurt the Obama ticket where it needs the most help — in swing states in the more genteel middle and southern parts of the nation.
But as a libertarian who finds the political process to be much like a circus, I was surprised that Biden angered me so much. After all, why wouldn’t the vice-presidential sideshow in a political circus occasionally feature a clown for the main entertainment?
Then it hit me: Biden’s actions were an affront to basic civility, a little understood yet crucial element of our political system.
In my younger days as a commentary writer, I sneered at what was then a budding “civility movement” — an effort by those on the Left to depict boisterous conservative and libertarian complaints as beyond the pale of polite discourse.
I even debated in the mid-1990s former House Speaker Jim Wright, a leader of this short-lived movement, on the pages of the Houston Chronicle. I can’t recall exactly what I wrote, but my sense was that Democrats had long been used to ruling the roost in the Capitol, and they were perfectly happy patting go-along-get-along Republicans on the head and singing the praises of good manners and bipartisanship. Those who challenged their power — think of U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. — were dismissed as hooligans.
Wright, of course, was still stinging from Gingrich’s attacks in the late 1980s, when he dubbed Wright “the least ethical speaker of the 20th century” and led the charge against Wright’s dubious book deal — causing him to resign the speakership after the House found him in violation of 69 ethics rules, according to a recent New York Times account.
Gingrich, who unfortunately has turned into a caricature of a Boss Hogg-type figure with ethics questions of his own, was a tough partisan player. But Wright was as partisan and uncivil as Gingrich. That’s what I found so nauseating about Wright’s later attempts to embrace the mantle of civility and good government. It was as if Bill Clinton became the head of a movement promoting chastity and marital fidelity.
But I’m older and wiser, and now realize I was wrong to mock the concept of civility simply because those championing the term were hypocrites and charlatans. Civility is fundamental to our political system. helping grease the skids of a peaceful and democratic society. Without it, political races can go from vicious to violent. We should all be thankful that even the most ruthless politicians peacefully leave office after they are vanquished in an election.
The Institute for Civility in Government says civility “is about more than merely being polite, although being polite is an excellent start. … Civility requires the extremely hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and perhaps fierce disagreements. It is about constantly being open to hear, to learn, to teach and to change.”
That’s not a bad description. As someone passionate about ideas, by the way, I don’t find anything necessarily uncivil about expressing them forcefully, nothing terribly outrageous about getting hot under the collar and occasionally losing one’s temper. I grew up in an East Coast family where we argued for sport, so I’m used to boisterous debates followed by friendly rounds of beer at the local bar.
But the key issue above is not unwavering politeness, but “staying present” — i.e., staying engaged with what the other person is saying and trying to debunk their arguments rather than destroy their personhood.
It was the latter point that Vice President Joe Biden violated so egregiously Thursday night in his debate. His smirking and interrupting were designed to score points and detract from Ryan’s stature and arguments. Biden was being a bully, and in being a bully revealed not just a lack of class and dignity, but a failure to engage, listen and stay present.
Biden’s performance reminded me of those TV talk-show “debates” that infuriate me. Everyone states their own talking points without considering the points made by their foes. Everyone tries to be glib, to humiliate one’s opponent and to win — “winning” defined mainly as satisfying those who already have bought into your political program.
It would be nice to actually wrestle with real arguments and figure out how the country can best emerge from its continuing fiscal crisis. Ryan was at least trying to do that, whereas glib, arrogant and clownish Biden had such little respect for others’ views that he didn’t even try — just as the top of his ticket, President Obama, seemed too self-absorbed to intellectually show up for his debate with Mitt Romney.
My guess is I’m not the only one who was angry and that Biden’s outrageous incivility will have an impact on this race.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.