Posts Tagged ‘Joe Biden’


By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-12-12

While polls show that those surveyed consider Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate with Barack Obama by landslide proportions, the vice presidential debate will probably be perceived as more of a tie. Democrats who went in primed to like Joe Biden will applaud his slash-and-burn aggressiveness. Republicans who went in primed to like Paul Ryan will applaud his wonky Boy Scout earnestness. In the end, this vice presidential debate, like most, will have little impact on the electoral outcome.  But the big question this debate raised is one of debating dignity. Biden’s performance – and he was clearly performing – included smirking, scoffing, chuckling, and guffawing, although he seems to have mostly skipped the sighing which hurt Al Gore’s standing in 2000 when he debated George W. Bush.

The quest for dignity is as old as the republic. It reflects America’s more elitist and character-oriented republican roots, as well as the monarchical dimensions involved in executive leadership. Originally, the candidate’s virtue as expressed through his dignity was so cherished it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to run, they stood for election, as George Washington did. But the waves of democracy that transformed America also changed campaigning protocols, launching candidates into the hurly burly of the political process.

Of course, these restrictions apply more to presidents and potential presidents than vice presidents. And there is a strong counter-tradition – which Biden clearly embraced – of the Veep or Veep nominee as tough campaigner, partisan mudslinger, and hatchet man – or woman. In 1900, when William McKinley ran for re-election against the charismatic William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s running mate Theodore Roosevelt fought hard against the activist Bryan.   Roosevelt delivered 673 speeches to an estimated three million people, while Bryan’s 546 speeches reached approximately 2.5 million Americans. As Roosevelt denounced Bryan and the Democrats for appealing “to every foul and evil passion of mankind,” resorting to “every expedient of mendacity and invective,” McKinley remained presidentially above the fray.

Half a century later, Richard Nixon did the dirty work for President Dwight Eisenhower – and then expected his vice president Spiro Agnew to fight the partisan wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s against those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” reporters and Democrats. Most recently, in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric was far harsher than Barack Obama’s, her running mate John McCain’s, or her opponent, Joe Biden’s.

Republicans are already encouraging a backlash against Biden’s antics. Whether this will become a broader phenomenon remains to be seen.  But, even with all the handwringing over Obama’s passivity last week, Biden should have been more restrained.  His behavior turned ugly not just undignified at the end, when Paul Ryan tried to conclude on a gracious note of respect toward the Vice President, and Biden kept clowning rather than rising to the moment. Although his position is modified by the word “Vice,” America’s number two leader should still act like a president.


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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12

Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-3-08

When this campaign began so many months and $4.3 billion ago, many pollsters and pundits predicted that Election Day would be the final round of the battle of the New York titans, pitting Hillary Rodham Clinton against Rudy Giuliani. Back then, when we thought about waking up at 3 AM, we usually associated it with an unwelcome run to the john, not the test – as described in Hillary Clinton’s campaign commercial – of who was ready to lead the nation. If we imagined a ceiling with 17 million cracks in it, we assumed it would shatter, especially if the ceiling was glass; when we worried about meltdowns, it was because our kids were overprogrammed or undersupervised, not because our financial markets were overstretched and under-scrutinized; and when we talked about Joe the plumber we grumbled about the guy who charged too much and came too slowly not some idealized version of the people’s wisdom incarnate. In those days when we thought about the largest state in the union, we wondered what its connection was with baked Alaska, we did not think about the half-baked ideas of the governor from Alaska and the conventional wisdom in Washington described Joe Biden as a blow-dried, blowhard politician, (who barely won 11,000 votes when he ran in the 2008 primaries) rather than the ultimate democratic ideal, a working class kid from Scranton conjured into Beltway foreign policy guru. The most famous Barak in the world was Ehud, the Israeli Defense minister, and –dare I say it — the most famous Hussein was either Saddam or the late King of Jordan. Moreover, most Americans agreed that the most decent, nonpartisan, moderate member of the United States senate was… John McCain.

It has been quite the ride. Political scientists who doubt the impact campaigns can have on votes will need to take this roller-coaster of a campaign into account. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead in the general campaign switched at least three times. Judging by most polls, Obama led for much of the summer, McCain surged just before and during the Republican National Convention. Then Obama pulled into the lead thanks to the financial meltdown and Obama’s steadier debate performances.

Tomorrow, American voters will find themselves shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judge – but also partially try to replicate — the 1980s revolution. Both nominees represent the tremendous progress the country has made since the 1960s. As one of America’s most famous Vietnam veterans, John McCain represents the seachange in attitudes towards Vietnam vets, partially due to his own efforts. Although the claim that soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat at has never been proven, in the 1970s, many felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in American culture as a symbol of patriotism, selflessness, and sacrifice illustrates that many of the national wounds from that war have healed.

Obama, who has spent much of the campaign remarking about how young he was during the 1960s, is in so many ways a child of that decade. The civil rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than any of them dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr’s audacity was in dreaming his children would be treated as the equal of whites, not that they would be in a position to lead.

As the sixties casts its shadow on this choice, the decade of the eighties looms large as well. When John McCain is not paying homage to Theodore Roosevelt, McCain speaks of Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offer the kind of muscular, nationalist, leadership McCain admires. Obama admires that style of leadership too, even if he dislikes Reagan’s policies. In a January interview in Nevada, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” In defending these remarks against the inevitable Democratic – and Clintonesque – onslaught – Obama explained that he was not embracing Reagan’s positions, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.” Again and again, at his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama has demonstrated a similar potential.

Of course, the financial meltdown put the legacy of the 1980s into contention more directly. In the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made 2008 look like it was going to be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption helps explain Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. This choice – like so many other assumptions – seemed unnecessary once the stock market started plummeting.

Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic. Of course, that was par for the campaigning course. But the campaign hoopla is almost over. Tomorrow, the president-elect has to start planning how to help the country – a task that will make the challenges of even this campaign seem downright trivial.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-26-08

The “experience” argument has had a funny track record this campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to float her way to the White House based on her supposedly considerable experience – and lost. Barack Obama may be one of the least politically experienced politicians since that other Illinois pol, Abraham Lincoln, captured the White House, but most voters don’t seem to mind. In fact, the candidate who has been repeatedly denounced as inexperienced and unqualified to be president is the only national candidate with actual executive experience in the race, the former mayor and current governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

All this goes to show that a resume only tells part of the story. Any fair observer who has watched Palin’s interview with Katie Couric should admit to some reservations about Sarah Palin’s readiness to lead. Couric asked fair questions in a straightforward manner, and Palin often responded like an unprepared undergraduate who tries to reframe a question or sling broad generalizations about America to substitute for specific answers. Similarly, in her debate with Joe Biden, Palin came on strong but by mid-debate was sidestepping too much and repeatedly invoking her McCain-and-me-are-Mavericks mantra.

Most disturbing of all, Sarah Palin seems singularly unqualified in the field of foreign affairs, even though John McCain’s candidacy rode – and seems to be falling – on the argument of its primacy during these touchy times. I have no problem with Republicans who say “yes, she’s unqualified but I’m still voting for president and McCain is my choice.” I can even accept Republicans who argue that the media has been particularly tough on Palin and soft on Joe Biden, who has made a number of unacceptable factual errors on the campaign trail in addition to his role as gaffe-master general. But I have a hard time accepting those who claim that they have no concerns about Palin’s limited national experience and superficial understanding of foreign affairs.

At the same time, it is extremely disturbing that most polls suggest that Al Franken is about to be elected Senator from Minnesota. Franken is not only unqualified, he has been a destructive force in American politics for years. That Minnesota, a state once known for its calm, constructive, progressive politics, could take this aggressive, mean-spirited, Democratic clown at all seriously shows how far American politics have fallen. We all know that we live in an age of celebrity and that stardom in one field transfers over to another arena far too easily. Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been equally unqualified when they won their respective gubernatorial seats, but at least they had not been harming the system with harsh rhetoric and buffoonery for years. Al Franken is no better than Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, who also should – by now — have talked their way out of being taken seriously by voters.

It is fashionable to lament that partisanship is blind. Actually, partisanship is myopic. Partisans have a distorted view of the world, wherein they are able to see the flaws in a rival party’s candidate while overlooking similar flaws in a candidate from their own camp. So here is my test for 2008. How many people are willing to denounce both Sarah Palin and Al Franken as unqualified for the respective positions they seek? Even at this late date, it is important to test ourselves and each other for consistency, to see if we have any objective standards – or it is all a matter of partisan positioning.

Parties serve an important role in American democracy, as do hard fought campaigns. But politics is about governing not just winning. Occasionally acknowledging your own party’s missteps is an important step in building those bridges of civility and mutuality that are essential for going forward the day after Election Day, a day that is rapidly approaching.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-3-08

The Vice Presidential debate proved to be better than the battle of the boobs many reporters led Americans to expect. Voter interest soared partially because Sarah Palin is a fresh and intriguing personality and partially because she had stumbled so badly in recent interviews. When she hemmed and hawed before ABC’s Charles Gibson, supporters could counterattack that Gibson had been condescending. But CBS’s Kaite Couric gently lobbed one softball question after another at the Alaska Governor, and Palin had muffed them repeatedly, embarrassingly. The debate ratings improved also because of what we might term the Jon Stewart effect – many people wanted to watch the event live so they could get the jokes about it later, in this case the inevitable Tina Fey imitation of Palin on “Saturday Night Live.”

Joe Biden was also being set up for a fall. Various newspapers had run stories about Biden the bloviator, Washington’s gaffe-master general. Biden, we were told, was practicing debating with female stand-ins for Palin to help avoid appearing condescending. Still, the real threat to Biden was some ramble, some embarrassing mangle of something very simple, or some Freudian slip wherein what he said was the opposite of what he intended – or should have intended – to say.

With the bar set so low, both candidates performed admirably. Palin was coherent throughout. As in her Republican National Convention speech, she showed an impressive ability to appeal directly to voters, to keep the common touch. She used her smile to great effect, sometimes to endear, sometimes to blunt the dagger she was thrusting toward Biden’s heart. Perhaps most surprisingly, she gave a remarkably nuanced answer to a question about gay marriage, saying she welcomed diversity of lifestyles in her own family and among her fellow citizens, but still defined marriage as between a man and woman.

Biden was disciplined throughout, on message and aggressive, but not bullying. Palin was probably stronger the first half, with Biden occasionally flashing a forced, seemingly haughty smile and looking too much the senatorial peacock. In the second half, Biden let loose a series of smooth, hard-hitting riffs against McCain that tagged the Republican candidate as George W. Bush the second and wrong on the war, the economy, the environment and energy. By then, also, Palin was beginning to sound like a broken record, and her smiles were wearing thin.

In fact, if reporters did not have us conditioned to approach this debate like drama critics, or horse handicappers, we all would agree that both candidates disappointed. Neither one had a compelling, creative, or even interesting diagnosis or prescription regarding the financial crisis. Both major party presidential tickets continue to miss the leadership opportunity to address the Wall Street crisis thoughtfully, creatively, substantively. Instead we see finger-pointing at the other party, and predictable attacks on the greed and corruption of Wall Street.

While Biden did not break new ground intellectually in defending his running mate Barack Obama and attacking John McCain, Palin in particular demonstrated the exhaustion of Republican ideology. Twice she sounded like a kinder, gentler, version of Ronald Reagan, echoing his lines that government cannot be the solution to every problem, and saluting the United States as a shining city upon the hill. But 28 years after Reagan won the presidency, Republicans themselves need to push the analysis beyond viewing tax cuts as the answer to every economic challenge and defense build ups as the answer to every foreign policy threat. Palin’s limited and repetitive riffs reinforce the need for the Republicans to redefine and reinvigorate their vision, whether they win or lose.

Both candidates also failed to answer important questions. The moderator Gwen Ifill asked an excellent question about what expenditure the nominee intended to cut out now that the bailout was proving so expensive. When both candidates sidestepped the question, one of the McGill students watching the debate with me sighed. “This is why my generation is so turned off to politics,” she explained. “Politicians don’t answer direct questions, so we get cynical about the game and lose interest.”

My student was correct. While both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin demonstrated considerable talent, they both failed to articulate a compelling new vision that fits these difficult times. That their performances are nevertheless attracting such praise reveals how low our expectations have become for all our politicians, whether they are rookies on the national stage or 35-year Senate veterans.

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A look at the U.S. presidential race

On both sides of the border, there is an election going on. Like it or not, many Canadians are still more focused on the American one.

Some perspective from Gil Troy, our U.S. analyst. — Click to View Video

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HNN, 8-26-08

Michelle Obama had two tasks last night when addressing the Democratic National Convention, one positive and one negative. She had to offering a compelling narrative about her life and her husband’s while dispelling the rumors that the two were too elitist and not patriotic enough. To execute this unassisted double-play she uncorked that traditional, magical, American elixir: The American Dream.

In a lovely address that was more about setting a tone than solving problems, Mrs. Obama offered her more conventional biography of South-Side-Chicago-girl-made-good as a way of Americanizing her husband’s famously unconventional biography. Michelle Obama began by repeatedly emphasizing her humble origins, her parents’ values, her up-from-the-bootstraps life story. Standing by the podium radiant and – thank you Joe Biden – not just articulate but eloquent — Michelle Obama was implicitly saying to Mr. and Mrs. America, “I’m just like you. I began in a small room in an undistinguished neighborhood, and look how far I have come.” And then, rhetorically embracing her husband, blurring her story with his, she proclaimed: “And you know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he’d grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”

Taking the American dream as their common lodestone, she said: “And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Prior to Michelle Obama’s warm, uplifting speech, Ted Kennedy, the perpetual crown prince of the Democratic Party, made his emotional plea for a Barack Obama presidency. Slower and bloated, but still passionate, Kennedy deputized the young Illinois senator as the heir to Camelot. Speaking of dreams, and channeling his own extraordinary, fiery, and heartbreaking “the dream will never die” consolation speech at the 1980 convention after losing the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy proclaimed: “The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.”

In the one false note in an otherwise powerful opening, the video tribute to Senator Kennedy spent a lot of time filming him as he steered various younger Kennedys on a majestic sailing ship. It seemed pretty clear that this schooner was part of the Kennedy fleet and not a one-time rental. In a week when Democrats were busy mocking Senator John McCain’s many houses, a quiet scene at home – or at the office — might have been politically wiser.

Of course, the beauty of the American Dream is that it allows our politicians to be far wealthier than ordinary Americans –as so many are. The Obamas have to emphasize their humble origins because, having converted Barack Obama’s newfound celebrity into newfound riches, they do not want to lose their once-common touch. American Dream rhetoric soothes have-nots with hopes of joining the haves, taking the sting out of class differences. The Kennedys have long been a family humanized by both heartbreaking tragedies and soaring liberal idealism despite their vast wealth. McCain erred by appearing doddering and out of touch, relying on his staff to count his and his wife’s houses.

While Americans are not always tolerant of the ways of the wealthy — as John Kerry discovered when he was mocked for windsurfing in 2004 – Americans frequently put up with loaded pols. Perhaps less acceptable are overloaded intellectual credentials. In his botched, sexist introduction of his wife during his debut as Vice Presidential nominee on Saturday, Senator Joe Biden seemed to mock his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for being a braniac – or at least awkwardly try insulating her from those charges. He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, is drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, she also has her doctorate degree, which is a problem. But all kidding aside, my Jill, my Jill, my wife, Jill, and I are honored to join Barack and Michelle on this journey, because that’s what it is.”

The true American journey, which catapulted the Obamas, the Bidens, the McCains and the Kennedys to the stratosphere, acknowledges difference while seeking equality of opportunity. Great wealth is acceptable – but so should be great intellectual achievements, which certainly helped Michelle and Barack Obama get where they are today.

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