In 2004, Barack Obama came to prominence with a speech, the central message of which was that he rejected talk of “red states” and “blue states” in favor of a middle-ground, all-American pragmatism that transcended the pettiness of politics. “I say to them tonight,” he orated at that year’s Democratic Convention, that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” This, Obama noticed, caused quite the stir. So he stuck with it, and, in 2008, he successfully managed to obfuscate a solidly liberal voting record and a range of murky past associations and to run as a healer who would cross the aisle and unite the country.
At the outset of his presidency, Obama said often that he especially wanted to hear from those who disagreed with him. He didn’t, but that wasn’t the point. Even as he prepared to ram the biggest piece of social legislation since 1965 through Congress without a single Republican vote, he claimed to want to replace “acrimony with civility,” to bring “the best ideas of both parties together,” and to synthesize “ideas from senators and congressmen, from Democrats and Republicans.” Chutzpah, indeed.
Yesterday evening, Joe Biden laughed, sneered, and mocked his way through the vice-presidential debate. However genuine his emotions were, Biden’s behavior implied a couple of things: firstly, that he doesn’t consider Paul Ryan — the Republican nominee for vice president and Chairman of the House Budget Committee, no less — to be worthy of his time; and, secondly, that Republican ideas are so dangerous, unpatriotic, and dishonest that they are undeserving of serious consideration or response. As one might expect, this delighted many on the left: In Rolling Stone today, Matt Taibbi wrote,
man, did [Biden] get it right in last night’s debate, and not just because he walloped sniveling little Paul Ryan on the facts. What he got absolutely right, despite what you might read this morning (many outlets are criticizing Biden’s dramatic excesses), was his tone. Biden did absolutely roll his eyes, snort, laugh derisively and throw his hands up in the air whenever Ryan trotted out his little beady-eyed BS-isms.
But he should have! He was absolutely right to be doing it. We all should be doing it.
One would expect Taibbi and the liberal base to feel this way, especially after Obama’s poor performance in the first debate — and one cannot blame them for it. But most people in America do not think like Matt Taibbi, and, as much as it might have thrilled the die hards, Biden’s extreme behavior might inadvertently have made it more difficult for Obama to make the case that he is the moderate in the race. If so, this is a problem, for as ridiculous as the majority of the commentariat appears to find conservatives, Obama still needs the support of at least some of them in order to win.
There is an opportunity for Romney here. Much as it infuriated Democrats, many of whom have managed to convince themselves that Romney is an extremist ideologue masquerading as a moderate, in Denver Romney came across as a reasonable guy who bore little resemblance to the caricature that the Obama campaign has spent months and millions drawing. At the next presidential debate, when explaining to the public how the Obama administration hijacked the crisis it inherited to pass a raft of long-coveted liberal measures, it wouldn’t do Romney any harm to point to Joe Biden’s laughing, dismissive attitude when he explains to the town hall audience that Obama doesn’t listen to anybody whose views sit outside of his comfort zone.