Egads, that was awful. And I do mean awful. Joe Biden’s constant laughing throughout the debate – beyond being annoying, rude, and unprofessional – was obviously coached. We see this in the legal profession with some frequency: litigators who hire coaches to help them act for the jury, in the hopes that the jurors will be swayed by the Academy Award-winning performance, and ignore the evidence. (Or lack thereof.)
It’s already in the annals of campaign debate lore that Naomi Wolf coached Al Gore about how to act like an “alpha male” and “dress in earth tones” during his debates against George W. Bush. And we know how that worked out for him. (Obviously investments were a better career choice than politics.)
Apparently, Joe Biden decided to take a leaf out of the same book. And with the same embarrassing results. One can just hear the conversation taking place prior to the Vice Presidential debate Thursday night:
Acting coach: OK, so the point is to make your opponent look small, young, silly. You want to belittle him. Everyone knows that humor is much more effective than criticism. So we want you to laugh at Paul Ryan every chance you get.
Joe B: You want me to laugh at him?
Joe B: What if the topic is Libya? Our ambassador was murdered in Libya. Three other American diplomatic workers were killed. There are congressional hearings about intelligence lapses even as we speak. I’ve got decades of foreign policy experience; shouldn’t I display gravitas?
Coach: C’mon, this is the American public we’re talking about. They watch shows with laugh tracks all the time. If you laugh, they’ll think it’s funny. Laugh at it.
Joe B: What about the economy? 23 million people are out of work. The unemployment rate is still at 8%. Nobody believes those lower job numbers from last week, and it doesn’t help that they left out the largest state in the country when they reported them. Ryan is going to emphasize their plans for economic recovery. I should laugh?
Coach: You bet. We want you to laugh.
Joe B: I know Martha Raddatz is going to bring up spending, and the national debt. Ryan’s a numbers guy, an economics wonk. He’s going to hit his talking points hard here.
Coach: Who cares? Let Ryan have talking points. You have punch lines! We want you to laugh. Oh, and interrupt him. And the moderator.
Joe B: But if I laugh and interrupt throughout the entire debate, won’t I look boorish? Unprofessional? Stupid?
Coach: Dude, you’ve been here for the last four years, right? That’s the point! You’re the comic foil. You make the President’s otherwise inexplicable silence last week look like presidential restraint by comparison. We’re pros, and highly-paid consultants! We know what we’re talking about. And anyway, we’re not telling you to laugh the same way every time; shake it up a little: Chuckle. Snort. Smirk. Grimace. Giggle. Guffaw. Chortle. Slap the table. Throw your hands in the air. Double over. Shake your head in amused disbelief.
Joe B: I don’t know ….
Coach: Oh, and flash your teeth. As often as possible. You know the old saying: if you can’t baffle them with brilliance, dazzle them with dental work.
Joe B: They say that?
Coach: Of course.
Politicians who take this tack think that voters are just as stupid and easily distracted as litigators-turned-circus-performers think juries are. And they are just as wrong.
It’s no wonder that the folks behind the scenes in the Obama administration pull this kind of stunt and call it “debate prep.” It reflects the same ignorance that people who have no experience with business often say about marketing: it’s all about deceiving people into buying something they otherwise wouldn’t. Does it surprise anyone that an administration that displays such consistent ignorance about business would take this approach?
In business, marketing takes a strong product or service, and emphasizes the best qualities to the consumer. A great product can be tanked by lousy marketing, it’s true. But a lousy product can only be propped up so long by glitzy marketing. You might make the sale once. Maybe twice. But eventually, the consumer figures out that poor quality is the rule, not the exception. And then you’re finished.
The Obama campaign ran in 2008 on slick packaging, glitzy marketing, and distraction. That worked. Four years later, American consumers have had ample opportunity to look inside the box and see what’s in it –
In 2012, Obama and Biden cannot run on marketing. And they cannot use acting coaches to sway the “jury”; American voters are paying attention. The failures of Obama’s economic policies are everywhere we look. Economic growth is limp. Job growth is nearly non-existent. Unemployment is persistently high, with rates dropping only because people stop looking for jobs. Businesses – large and small – avoid expansion and other growth decisions, deterred by the uncertainties associated with new regulations, fees and costs that the Obama administration threatens, in health care, in environmental matters, and in taxes.
And, as Paul Ryan pointed out Thursday night, the president’s foreign policy – such as it is – is unraveling right before our eyes. Even while we can switch channels and listen to testimony before Congress about the calls for more security in Libya, the warnings of deteriorating conditions on the ground, and the immediate knowledge of a terrorist attack, Joe Biden thinks he can bluff and bluster and pretend that the administration has not failed its diplomatic staff and tried to cover up those failures by deceiving the American public.
No amount of maniacal laughter, and no amount of coaching, is going to distract the majority of American voters from these realities.
That neither Obama nor Biden can see it, is what’s laughable.
Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist and Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches entrepreneurship and business law. She is the author of the forthcoming publication, “Start Up, Screw Up, Scale Up: What Government Can Learn From the Best Entrepreneurs,” © 2014. Her opinions are her own, and do not reflect the position of the university. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraHollis61.