Normally, a debate “victory” doesn’t require quite so much damage control. Following Vice President Biden’s manic, careening ride through global politics last week, President Obama is left to make a variety of cleanups and clarifications.
On Libya, Biden managed to further muddle a muddled narrative. His claim that the administration had no knowledge of requests for added security in Benghazi required immediate correction. He was “speaking about himself and the president,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Which served to highlight the culpability of the State Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — while Clinton’s husband is stumping the country to salvage Obama’s reelection effort. Biden went on to blame “the intelligence community” for the administration’s multiday misinformation campaign — even though elements of the intelligence community apparently knew the truth within 24 hours of the attack. Biden raised more uncomfortable questions about the Libyan fiasco than weeks of congressional hearings could manage.
On Afghanistan, Biden described a policy of total and unconditional retreat that the Obama administration does not actually hold. “We are leaving in 2014, period,” said Biden. Responsible representatives of the administration put it a little differently: U.S. combat forces are leaving in 2014, but considerable special operations and training forces will remain to help prevent the Taliban from reestablishing a terrorocracy. Biden, in fact, was representing his own position in an internal White House debate — the abject-surrender option — rather than the administration’s stated view. During the debate, the other leader who must have been giggling was the Taliban’sMohammad Omar.
On Iran, Biden seemed to indicate that the regime’s enrichment program is no longer a primary American concern since the republic doesn’t have anything to put the enriched uranium in. Enrichment is the most difficult part of developing a nuclear bomb. Once achieved, weaponization is a relatively short step. Biden’s response to Iran’s defiant enrichment march? “Let’s all calm down a little bit here.”
So, in a mere 90 minutes, Biden managed to throw Hillary Clinton under the bus, CIA Director David Petraeus under the bus, our Afghan allies and the Afghan people under the bus and our Middle Eastern allies who fear an Iranian bomb under the bus. Which means that Obama, in trying to explain himself, is in for a bumpy ride. There is a reason Biden is generally kept out of press earshot. He is forever poised between an indiscretion and a different indiscretion.
But Biden’s performance will be forever remembered not for its content but for its tone. I have occasionally admired Biden’s emotional transparency and “happy warrior” enthusiasm. His debate presentation in Kentucky, in contrast, was a collection of disturbing, disorderly appetites. He displayed scene-chewing antics and preening exhibitionism and smirking rudeness and egotistical exuberance and bullying condescension. It was the attack of the feral ham actor. It would have been embarrassing if done in front of a mirror, much less on a debate stage.
This has complicated Obama’s life in another way. The road-rage wing of the Democratic Party (the GOP has one as well) views the Biden meltdown as a pioneering achievement in political discourse. Former governor Howard Dean — an expert in nontraditional political deportment — argues that Biden is “an excellent role model” for Obama. Since adopting this model would disqualify Obama for the presidency, elements of the left are bound to be disappointed with the president’s debate performances. And it will be harder for Obama to claim the mantle of bipartisanship when his running mate is celebrated for his incivility.
Biden has also marginally complicated the work of democracy. His supporters say that Joe is just being Joe — that he is one of a kind. But all ethics — from the Golden Rule to the categorical imperative — involve universalization. If Biden’s behavior were universalized, American politics would be a squalid, carnival sideshow. Or cable television. Whichever is worse. Americans have every right to hate politics if it looks like this.
At the height of a close election, it is worth a reminder that civility is the essential democratic virtue. Civility is not the same thing as niceness. The high stakes of politics can produce intense disagreements. But manners — even cold, formal ones — communicate a modicum of mutual respect and preserve the possibility of cooperation. John Stuart Mill called democracy “government by discussion.” Biden has left our discussion more toxic — and Obama’s task more difficult.