Smilin' Joe and the Democratic Way of Life

Posted: Oct 16, 2012 12:01 AM
Smilin' Joe and the Democratic Way of Life
Let's cut Smilin' Joe Biden a little slack, which is no heavy lifting for his fan base in the media. Common civility? The vice president showed none whatsoever toward Paul Ryan. Wisdom and insight? Not much of that escaped his lips during the televised encounter. Our No. 2 elected leader clearly had not come all the way to Kentucky to show his command of Emily Post, or impress future historians with examples of 21st century oratory.

Smilin' Joe had come chiefly to prevent Ryan from making substantive points concerning the nation's varied messes and conundrums. The idea wasn't to enlighten or inform; it was to obfuscate, cover up and change the subject. He got the job done. "Mr. Biden," reported The New York Times, "showed no hesitation in hectoring, heckling and interrupting his challenger."

Does that mean he won the encounter? I think it means the opposite. It means, I think, the 51 million who watched his performance went to bed chiefly with memories of Smilin' Joe using his mouth as an improvised explosive device.

"Whew!" a member of the Obama White House family would be entitled to exclaim. What if he'd tried actually to grapple with issues such as the deficit, tax reform, Medicare and policy in the Middle East? Talk frankly, in back and forth fashion, about matters that matter? That would have been to blow the game. And so Smilin' Joe cut in whenever he felt like it, threw around pieces of eloquence such as "malarkey," and lived down to any cynical expectations that might have been out there concerning the illumination of important issues.

It figured. Standard Operating Procedure for the Obama administration is to ignore criticism and double down on denial; don't give an inch to views other than your own. It's because you're right. Who could doubt it other than a member of the 1 percent?

Due to what could most kindly be called the president's overestimation of his policies and personal abilities, Congress for at least two years has been unable to address problems such as a debt that increases by $1 trillion a year and an economy presently growing -- as Ryan noted -- a mere 1.3 percent, with 23 million Americans out of work.

The president doesn't suffer opposition gladly. The personal aloofness that even the media can't refrain from mentioning during this endless campaign comes from refusal to engage serious arguments on policy questions. The math concerning Obamacare's financial stability doesn't work? Of course it works! The White House says so.

No one, according to the White House, criticizes the president in good faith, or with the hope of making things better. Don't we know the critics are just out to get Our Leader?

Into this pattern of denial and refusal to engage, Smilin' Joe Biden slips with grand self-confidence. What's all this malarkey, huh? Transcripts of the debate read, again and again, "Crosstalk." How enlightening. How educational. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying ears?" is what Smilin' Joe might as well have said at the start, paraphrasing Groucho Marx.

So here we are anyway. The worst-form-of-government-except-all-the-others-that-have-been-tried -- democracy, that is to say -- makes room not only for the Jeffersons and Adamses but for the Smilin' Joes, always ready with sharp elbows and epithets like "malarkey" to steer the argument in a direction more favorable to their cause. Or, if all else fails, then just to drown out the objectors.

In a splendid new book, "After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy," Chilton Williamson Jr. submits that, in order to prosper, democracy posits a certain kind of responsible character, a certain kind of humane outlook, on its citizens' part. And on its leaders' part as well? It's the same thing, actually. You get what you vote for. You can have John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, or if you really desire it, you can have Smilin' Joe Biden, ridiculing, interrupting, shouting down, condescending, reminding us of the height and urgency of the stakes, come November.

William Murchison, author and commentator, writes from Dallas. To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


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