The Corner

Biden’s Old-School Demagogy

This one was hard to watch, and I suspect many fewer people did watch it than watched the first presidential debate. The vice-presidential debate resembled one of those cacophonous political talk shows that call it dialogue when they encourage guests to talk over each other. Biden was the chief, almost the only, offender, but if you had listened over the radio you might have thought he won anyway, so oleaginous and unashamed was he. This was demagogy old-school style, without a trace of irony, betrayed only by the Joker-like smile. Thank goodness for television.

Still, politics usually trumps policy, and Ryan never attributed, or at least never seemed to attribute, a bad motive to Biden. He attacked the administration’s policies mostly as failures rather than as injustices, and it was unfortunate that he didn’t or couldn’t pound away at Obamacare until late in the debate. (To his credit, he did attack Solyndra and crony capitalism.) Why do the Democrats favor greater dependency on government? Why do they accept economic stagnation and insist on redistribution? Ryan never quite said.

Biden, by contrast, was emphatically political throughout; he enjoyed flaying the Republicans as toadies of the richest and greediest families in America. Too bad for him that Romney wrote off only 47 percent of the electorate. That leaves 53 percent, a decidedly democratic, not oligarchic, number. And besides, it’s better if snake-oil salesmen do not look and act like snake-oil salesmen. In that connection, I was disappointed, though, that he didn’t repeat the pledge he made in Florida the other day, of free colonoscopies for Medicare recipients. Perhaps Obama’s economic policies have made the procedure redundant.

On foreign policy, Biden’s stonewalling on Libya did not put the doubts to rest, only encouraging them. But he was effective in exposing the awkwardness of Romney-Ryan’s halfhearted neoconservatism: They want a tougher policy in the Middle East but no new ground wars, the same withdrawal date from Afghanistan, and democratization only where it inconveniences our enemies. On Iran, some differences between the parties glimmered but never became distinct. The word Ryan could not utter was “victory.” Republicans stopped talking about that in regard to the Mideast and the war against terrorism a long time ago.

Charles R. Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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