In many ways, the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan was the exchange everyone wanted to see when the presidential contenders took to the stage last week. There was heat; there was candour; and, best of all, there was “malarkey.”
As if to stop the bleeding from President Obama’s disappointing performance last Wednesday, Biden was even more of his unscripted self than usual, laughing at nearly everything Paul Ryan, 27 years his junior, had to say. For his part, Ryan was earnest and eager in the way an adolescent nephew might be when sparring with feisty uncle Joe. Theatrics aside, there was still the typical volley of obfuscations and selective elaborations—just with a bit more yelling.
Where, exactly, most of that yelling occurred is the interesting part. Both debaters were relatively restrained in their responses to moderator Martha Raddatz’s astute questions on US foreign policy, and neither responded animatedly in his answer to the question on abortion, the one social issue brought up. The heat came primarily when Biden and Ryan were discussing the middle class, the sacred American demographic they both claim to represent.
Given that the United States sees itself a bit like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon—where all the children are above average and all the taxpayers (even the wealthy) are somewhere in the middle—this is a group you need on your side if you’re going to be king of the castle. And things got a little bit testy in the moments when Ryan challenged the historic claim of Amtrak Joe to the oft-mythologised core of the American soul.
“Joe and I are from similar towns,” Ryan said toward the beginning. “He’s from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’m from Janesville, Wisconsin. You know what the unemployment rate in Scranton is today? It’s 10 per cent. You know what it was the day you guys came in? 8.5 per cent. That’s how it’s going all around America.”
Oh no he didn’t! Biden then whipped out Mitt Romney’s now infamous comment that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax and consider themselves victims, using the remark as a means of proving his own solidarity with the middle class.
“These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbours,” he said. “They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of social security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, not paying any taxes.”
The problem with the tenor of this exchange was that, like so many other discussions of the subject, it privileged appearing to belong to the middle class far more than actual ideas to improve its circumstances. After all, how else would it be remotely possible for a politician with an ideology as extreme as Paul Ryan’s to emerge looking like anything but a corporate lackey?
In the end, at least Raddatz asked the right questions. She pressed the congressman on how the Romney ticket’s pledge to slash federal income taxes by 20 per cent wouldn’t have to increase the budget deficit or the tax burden on the middle class, holiest of holies. It’s just unfortunate that the clamouring over Janesville and Scranton seems to have drowned out any ability to hear what was—or, rather, what wasn’t—being said.