Watching a vice presidential debate feels a lot like watching a football game. I don’t care who wins, I just watch for the social aspect. A good argument in a debate is a “point” in favor of the candidate making it. Biden’s silly facial expressions may have lost him “points” with voters. Supporters of either side aren’t looking to learn anything, but anxious to cheer whenever their guy makes one of these “points.”
And, like sports, I’m far more interested in the post-game analysis and people’s reactions to what they’ve just watched. I can’t sit patiently through an entire NFL broadcast, but I can listen to the analysts with great pleasure. But I can’t say I’ve found the post-debate analysis entertaining or the least bit enlightening.
Predictably, as the losing team of a football game might blame the referee, conservatives have accused moderator Martha Raddatz of liberal bias. It did seem to me that she was partial to Joe Biden, but how liberal was her bias really? Take a matter like Israel. In the debate, Biden and Paul Ryan shamefully climbed over top of one another trying to demonstrate who had greater support for the state, with Biden eventually referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his affectionate nickname “Bibi.” It seems to me that a good number of people in this country actually disapprove of the United States’ unwavering support of that region’s most outwardly aggressive power. Where is even a subtle nod to this in liberal Raddatz’s questioning? Of course, I never would have expected a televised U.S. debate to bring up Israeli crimes, but to see these two scramble against each other to ensure their full support was only the sternest reminder that it is a very narrow sector of interests indeed actually represented by our leadership.
Similarly on Iran, the two candidates were barely distinguishable from one another on Raddatz’s intensely liberal topic, “I’d actually like to move to Iran, because there’s really no bigger national security [threat] this country is facing.” One thing I didn’t expect though was Paul Ryan seeming, for a moment, like he was going to empathize with the Iranian leadership. To put myself in their shoes, per Ryan’s prompt, I would think, “This is a dangerous world. The moderator and both candidates of the most powerful state in the world just said we were public enemy #1, and the sitting Vice President boasted that he had turned Russia and China against us.” But I quickly realized that simple exercise in basic humanity, in Paul Ryan’s world, yields a different result. According to him, the U.S. is displaying weakness, and the Iranians see President Obama on daytime TV and think, “Now we can get away with things.” And worse, says Ryan, the Obama Administration has slashed the Navy to its lowest level since before World War I. This is truly terrifying, apparently. What will we do when the mighty Iranian Armada is bombing our coast?
The few concessions from Joe Biden that the Iranian threat is overhyped were probably the only moments of relief in the entire debate. But for the most part, the candidates were fighting as rabidly to pledge their antagonism to Iran as they fought to pledge their support to Israel. And in the post-debate commentary, Joan Walsh wrote, “[Ryan’s] worst moment came when he committed the U.S. to war to prevent Iran from nuclear weapons; Biden didn’t rule out war but said — predictably, safely and sanely — that it should be a last resort.” This remark from Joe Biden is not praiseworthy. It isn’t even spun particularly convincingly here. Nearly every politician says war is a last resort. Perhaps Walsh was impressed, but I don’t see how anyone opposed to war could be. “Last resort” doesn’t mean anything, it’s another empty political promise with as much substance behind it as “restoring freedom” or “defending our values.”
Of course, there was no mention of any of this in any of the commentary, liberal or conservative. Like all the election coverage, the focus is the same as it would be if it were the Rose Bowl on November 6th and not a Presidential election. “Who won, what talking points resonated, how will this affect the polls?” This is what concerns our most prominent intellectuals and news people.
I have to admit, if I was judging the debate from the perspective of someone who cared – which I did try very hard to do – I would have had a tough time awarding a victor. Joe Biden seemed overly eager to call out Paul Ryan’s lies, to the point where his interruptions actually made him look bad. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan confirmed what everyone probably suspected, coming off as amazingly disingenuous and insincere, particularly when he told that painful story about Charitable Mitt Romney sending a fellow churchgoer’s kids to college.
But the end of the debate was one of the most fascinating television moments I’ve ever seen, and I’m amazed it hasn’t come up in the commentary. Joe Biden’s closing statement seemed to wrap up everything discussed in the evening and came off-the-cuff, directed at Raddatz as much as anyone. But Paul Ryan’s closing comments were spoken to the camera and sounded obviously rehearsed. Doing his best impression of a horribly insincere salesman, Paul Ryan bade us, “You deserve better. Mitt Romney and I want to earn your support. We’re offering real reforms for a real recovery for every American.” Not even George Orwell could’ve imagined a more meaningless string of words than Paul Ryan’s closing argument. And the way he stared right at the camera and feebly attempted to come off as authentic actually gave me chills. In this one weird moment of television history, a far-right candidate for the second highest office transcended mere sliminess into near-super villainy.
It could be that a phrase like “War is a last resort” only sounds like Newspeak to me, and other people see its relation to the real world. Maybe both the candidates’ and the moderator’s invocation of real human beings’ stories, whether they be soldiers or the sick or the elderly, sound authentic and fit right in to most viewers. To me, they sound awkward and forced.
In the debate I watched, there was very little to set the candidates apart in substance besides the abortion question. Even then both men proudly touted their religious conviction, not something I, as a real part of the American constituency, care anything about and, in fact, look down on. Paul Ryan offered a very weak nod to science in his justification, but the idea that "life begins at conception" because his bean-shaped daughter had a heartbeat is absurd on enough levels to warrant an article of its own. At least Joe Biden is clearly better on this matter. "It's a decision between them and their doctor," was probably the only intelligent thing either person said, but even he cast subtle dispersion on anyone getting an abortion by saying he endorses his church's position that it's immoral. On economic, healthcare, and foreign policy matters, I heard a lot of passionate arguing within the same narrow parameters. No sweeping reforms were proposed, only the usual minor adjustments of the present system, some slight shifting of percentages.
Maybe the best moment came not on the TV screen but in the room I watched it in. A German friend of my friends was staying at the house, and spent most of the debate doing other things. I didn’t ask, but I assumed he had never seen something like this before. He sat down for Raddatz’s last question, the positively ridiculous, “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” Immediately, he burst out laughing. And I had to laugh, too. It would have been an appropriate response for most of the debate. Seeing how detached from reality the whole affair is, it is the only reaction for a sane person to have.