I love Joe Biden.
Now I know that, by writing that simple sentence, I will have lost more than half of my reading audience. I am a Christian — an evangelical one at that — and such Christians in America have been programmed by a relentless stream of propaganda to believe that "liberals," and Democrats in particular, are evil incarnate. That is the legacy of Jerry Falwell and his minions, who deftly used the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the issue of abortion in particular, to shift political discourse away from its traditional focus on weighty matters of domestic (economic and justice issues) and international policy to matters of culture and sexual morality. As a result, legions of Christians have fled the Democratic Party to find a new home in the Republican Party, which consequently has been transformed away from its historic character as the party of business and the wealthy to what it is today: a party that, while not abandoning its foundational economic principles, has adopted the public face of conservative southern culture. I certainly understand, and even respect, Christians who feel compelled to vote Republican on single issues such as abortion. But what I don't understand is how so many Christians are now apparently ready to turn a blind eye to the increasingly radicalized economic policies of the GOP — or, even worse, to defend such policies — all of which are designed explicitly to benefit the wealthy and weaken the societal safety net instituted by FDR. The Bible, after all, has little to say about abortion, and what it does say is hardly unambiguous, but it has plenty to say about social justice, love of neighbor, compassion, and mercy. One would think that Christians in the GOP would work to make the party more "compassionate" in its conservatism, to really put some flesh on the bones of what, in George W. Bush's mouth, was a mere slogan. But no. Thus far they have been content simply to swallow the Republican lines about Ayn Rand and "Austrian" economics hook, line, and sinker, with nary a pricked conscience in the lot of them.
Enter Joe Biden. Needless to say, I don't agree with all his policies (disclosure: I am pro-life, though I would be unwilling to proscribe all exceptions). And, at times, I have winced at some of his so-called "gaffes." But, paradoxically, it is in these gaffes that he truly resonates with me. What they evince is a man whose passion in advocating his deeply held views is not mitigated by an overt concern about what other people think about him. Like me, he is an American of Celtic descent (Biden Irish Catholic, I Scots-Irish Protestant) who was raised under middle class conditions in the Philadelphia area (I in West Philly and Havertown, Biden in Claymont and Wilmington, Delaware) and roots for the Phillies and Eagles. Like I have always hoped to be, Biden is fearless, confident in the truth of the positions he advocates, even when he might be mistaken.
As a college professor, I often espoused viewpoints that were, to say the least, politically inexpedient for a man in my position. And, so I have been told, I did so with a passion similar to, and no doubt inherited from, my very Irish, and East Orange, New Jersey-raised father. But I always warned my students to divide what I said in half, in that my purpose was often to jolt students out of their evangelical, pietistic complacency so they could view the biblical text with new eyes. Not surprisingly, a few students failed to get the message, and the supposed offense they (or third parties not privy to the original discussions) took got me into trouble on multiple occasions. At times, I didn't even need to say anything. Just my "body language" or facial expressions were enough to incriminate me. That, I suppose, is one of the perils of transparency. And Joe Biden, if nothing else, is transparent to a fault.
Last night's Vice Presidential debate was interesting as much for the reactions it generated as for the light it shone on the issues at stake (though I would maintain it succeeded more on that score than the Presidential debate last week). Democratic partisans were ecstatic, viewing Biden's performance as the needed corrective to President Obama's inexplicably wan performance in Denver. Republican partisans were outraged at Biden's "rudeness" and the "disrespect" he showed Congressman Ryan. Those who remained undecided (are there really any of these left?) were mixed in their reaction. A CNN poll had it 48%-44% in favor of Ryan, whereas a CBS poll had it 50%-32% in favor of Biden.
The response of conservatives to Biden's impassioned blitz of Ryan is, to me, an index of the Vice President's achievement of his primary aim, to wit, to right Team Obama's listing ship and build momentum and passion in its base. "Rudeness" and "disrespect" are in the eye of the beholder, indeed. Part of this reaction is, no doubt, cultural. Philly-style, in-your-face directness does not play well in other, more genteel places like the South and rural Midwest. With regard to "respect," Biden did walk on eggshells four years ago in his debate with Sarah Palin so as not to cause offense. But his role this time was different because the circumstances were different. President Obama, a man of serious intellect but often more interested in "seeming" reasonable and conciliatory, had widely been panned as the loser in the previous week's debate, inexplicably failing to call out Mitt Romney for comments he made that were (similarly) widely judged to be unspecific and misleading. Biden, under these circumstances, had to do what he does best: act like an attack dog, forcing his opponent either to state the inconvenient specifics of the Romney-Ryan economic plan or to prevaricate in an attempt to further obfuscate the issues. And this Biden did with cold efficiency, emphatically aligning his (and Obama's) policies with the interests of the middle class:
We (in the Obama administration) knew we had to act for the middle class. We immediately went out and rescued General Motors. We went ahead and made sure that we cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, 'No, let Detroit go bankrupt.'....But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend (Ryan) recently in a speech in Washington, he said '30 percent of the American people are takers.' These people are my mom and dad — the people I grew up with, my neighbors. 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. There are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, 'not paying any tax.' I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent - it's about time (Republicans) take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class we're going to level the playing field.The Vice President likewise scored with his revelation that Congressman Ryan had actively sought stimulus funds for his district in Wisconsin, the very stimulus he now lambastes as misguided and harmful to the economy. In addition, moderator Martha Raddatz did some of Biden's work for him, calling Ryan out for failing to provide specifics about what middle class deductions would have to be eliminated to pay for the tax cuts, once again heavily weighted toward the upper classes, his plan proposes. Indeed, in my view Ryan's entire budget is an exercise in playing economic Fantasyland, as academic pundits from Paul Krugman (here) to former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (here) have argued. At the very least, Ryan and Romney owe it to the American people to be specific about their proposals instead of waxing platitudinous on the issue. My hunch, however, is that doing so would hurt their chances with the working class people they so desperately need to prove victorious in their campaign. As it is, the Republicans' success in turning the tax issue into a referendum on fairness for the rich (!), the only people who have benefited economically over the past 30 years, is the most amazing bit of political voodoo I have witnessed in my five and a half decades on this planet. It is, frankly, inexplicable to me that so many Christians have (only recently?) bought into this economic line.
For me the highlight of the evening came when Biden termed a criticism of President Obama's chilly dealings with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu "a bunch of stuff," later defining "stuff" as "malarkey." The Irishman in me grinned at his use of this designation. The theologian in me thought St. Paul would have called it "skybala."
One more matter bears discussion. This concerns the matter of Biden's supposed "disrespect" towards Ryan. This, frankly, is "a bunch of stuff," especially coming from people who count Ronald Reagan's smirking "there you go again" quip to Jimmy Carter among their most favored political memories. One simply can't have it both ways. What this shows, above all else, is that what people see and hear, and how they evaluate what they see and hear, are inextricably tied to their worldview and belief system already set in place. And for those blissfully unaware of these preunderstandings and presuppositions, let alone those unwilling to re-examine them because of the existential angst such could potentially cause, no amount of argument can dislodge them from the beliefs they hold so deeply. Had Biden not forcefully called Ryan to account, he would simply have been following the failed template Obama had set the previous week (That, I suppose, is what Ryan's supporters had hoped Biden would do). Not only would Ryan have gotten away, like Romney did, with generalities and fudging of the truth; Biden also would have, like Obama, been judged as "weak," all the more problematic given his age and experience. Thankfully the tough Irishman, even if he overdid the smiling a bit, didn't back down in the interests of forced gentility. Agree or disagree with his positions, he is a man willing to fight for his convictions, and for that he garners my respect.