October 12, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In his New York Times column today, David Brooks views the vice-presidential debate as a contest between generations. In Brooks opinion, Vice President Joe Biden represents an earlier time “when the old Democratic giants from the New Deal era still roamed the earth … [and] when there were still regional manners, regional accents and greater distance from the homogenizing influence of mass culture.” Congressman Paul Ryan, by contrast, “emerges from … a generation armed with self-awareness … nurtured by the conservative policy apparatus…. [The debate] was a battle of generations. The age difference was the undercurrent of every exchange. The older man had the virility, but, in a way, that will seem antique to many. ” While Brooks picks and pans both candidates, he lets his e-mail correspondents drive his harshest criticism of Biden:
… my in-box was filled with a certain number of people who would be happy if they could spend the next few weeks delivering some punches to Biden, and not just Republicans. What do independents want most? They want people who will practice a more respectful brand of politics, who will behave the way most Americans try to behave in their dealings: respectfully, maybe even pausing to listen for a second. To them, Biden will seem like an off-putting caricature of the worst of old-style politics.
You may find it ironic that Brooks characterizes those who want to see “a more respectful brand of politics” as being “happy if they could spend the next few weeks delivering some punches to Biden.” Perhaps, like me, you are thinking that beating up an older man for expressing his opinions is not all that respectful. What with Biden’s being the V-POTUS and all, such respectful behavior would land Brooks’ respectful correspondents in respectable federal prisons.
Brooks sees the difference between the two candidates as one of style. While Biden is “flamboyant” and “demonstrative,” Ryan is “cool” and “professional,” in Brooks’ estimation. He cautions that Biden’s “style of politics … makes complex trade-offs impossible.” However are we going to solve our fiscal problems if we approach them as Biden does, with a ‘tude? “This is not just an issue of manners,” Brooks warns. In that much, he is correct:
What Brooks illuminates but certainly does not write, is that one of the most glaring verities of the debate was a demonstrable difference between heart and heartless. That has little to do with generational mores and is only peripherally related – if at all – to “style.” Biden reminded us that he and the Democratic party have long had heart. Speaking of Romney and Ryan’s plans for Medicare, Biden asked, “Who you believe, the AMA? Me? A guy who’s fought his whole life for this? Or somebody who had actually put in motion a plan that knowingly cut – added $6,400 a year more to the cost of Medicare?” At one point Biden looked into the camera and asked, “Folks, use your common sense: who do you trust on this?” Ryan’s immediate retort to Biden’s impassioned bit of theatrics: “That statistic was completely misleading.”
David Brooks characterizes this type of response from Ryan as “policy professionalism”: “… he had a tendency Thursday night to talk about policy even when he was asked about character. I would not say he defined a personality as firmly as he might have, but he did an excellent job of demonstrating policy professionalism,” Brooks writes. I, on the other hand, would call Ryan’s response irresponsible, cold-hearted, and cruel. This is not because I fault Ryan’s style; it is because I fault his long history of pushing legislation that demonstrates a careless disregard for his fellow Americans. Though Ryan himself received Social Security payments after his father died when Paul was a teenager, now and often in the past he has promoted legislation that would cut deep gashes in that social safety net.
Perhaps Ryan thinks we should dismantle the social safety net because his family was wealthy and he didn’t need those Social Security survivor’s benefits to live day-to-day – instead, he put them in a college savings account. Or perhaps it is because of some personality disorder that causes him – as a grown man and candidate for the vice-presidency – to continue to spout the harsh objectivist theories of Ayn Rand, a hypocrite who also took advantage of the benefits of a social safety net which she theoretically disdained.
As Joe Biden pointed out last night, Paul Ryan has called 30 percent of Americans “takers,” and Ryan has warned that the takers will soon outnumber the “makers.” Whether a person writes off 30 percent or 47 percent of the American people whom he plans to relieve of the “hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency,” is, I guess, a matter of what Ryan would call “statistics.” Whatever the number, the cold political philosophy underlying the secret Romney-Ryan budget plan does not bode well for the American economy or for individual Americans. Since the overwhelming majority of us have or will one day benefit from that social safety net, Ryan and his running mate Mitt Romney consider most of the American people contemptible.
By contrast, Joe Biden wears his heart on his sleeve. In fact, by contrast Biden has a heart to wear on his sleeve. Commentators have often remarked on former President Bill Clinton’s ability to connect with ordinary people. This is a “talent” Joe Biden shares with the former president. But I would say there is a substantive difference, even here. Clinton connects because – again, as many pundits have observed – he needs to be loved. He wants something back. Joe Biden connects because he has something to give. This isn’t part of some skill set Biden practiced up on. This is who he is. Biden was long known as “the poorest man in the Senate.” Like so many of his fellow senators, he could have taken advantage of his connections and his insider knowledge to become a multimillionaire. He didn’t. He is a maker, not a taker.
But all this is an aside to the great glaring omission of David Brooks’ column. Brooks attempts to frame Biden as a has-been, a holdover from or throwback to the days of the New Deal dinosaurs. He portrays Ryan as a man of today and the future: a member of the “meritocracy” who solves problems and finesses solutions through “a low-friction manner.” He compares Ryan, in this regard, to President Obama. (Somehow, when I’m getting a knife stuck in my back, it is less than cold comfort to realize that, as I lay dying, the assassin was “professional” and “polite.”) Biden is of course much less a product of the New Deal than he is of the post-World War II years (he was born in 1942) when political leaders from both sides of the aisle believed in a social compact among government, business and labor. President Obama often calls this “giving everyone a fair shot.” Elizabeth Warren has based her senatorial candidacy on that prescription for American success. It was, of course, a prescription that performed as hoped: this country’s greatest economic prosperity took place during that roughly 30-year period when the federal income tax was highly progressive, enrollment boomed in state-funded colleges and universities, labor unions secured good pay for hard work, banks concentrated on lending money instead of inventing “financial products,” and Bain Capital-style corporate raiders were still in school bullying the other kids. Joe Biden – a sometimes poor, sometimes middle-class kid from Scranton who went to a publicly-funded university – is by most measures an ordinary man. He was a poor student, a rather unexceptional U.S. senator (despite his longevity’s making him a prominent one), and he has known his share of personal setbacks.
But Joe Biden is also the personification of that post-war period when ordinary Americans could reasonably look forward to productive and fulfilling lives. This is what David Brooks wants you to forget. He tries to place Biden in the New Deal era to date him, but Biden is properly placed, both historically and ideologically, in the prosperous post-war era – an era of wealth equality unmatched in American history and vigorously attacked by three generations of conservatives.
It was this era, of course, that also laid the foundations and provided the environment for the civil rights and women’s movements and encouraged religious tolerance and ecumenicism. These movements made deep inroads into our country’s historical white Christian male rule. Millions of ordinary white men like Joe Biden came to embrace these changes in the basic structure of our society. Millions more, like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, founds myriad excuses to reject and undo the new inclusiveness. Today, Ryan and Romney rely on that ugly stub of American prejudice – the far right, way white, Christian fundamentalist bloc – to undergird their last-ditch effort to exclude racial and ethnic minorities from full participation in society (even to the extent of taking away their voting rights), to control women, to curb gay rights and to undermine religious tolerance. Whether they do this because of their core beliefs in their own superiority or they do it to secure a bigger piece of the pie for themselves, doesn’t much matter.
It is not just the New Deal these so-called conservatives seek to dismantle, it is also the Great Society, an America that opened up its arms, however reluctantly, to every citizen. If Joe Biden wants to turn back the clock, as David Brooks suggests, it is to the time that Brooks forgot. He wants to turn it back to a time when opportunities were open for ordinary people like him. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, on the other hand, plan to establish a neo-Gilded Age, where only club members have rights and privileges, and where most Americans will not be invited to apply.
Cheerleaders and court jesters like David Brooks should be careful what they wish for. Brooks is a convenient retainer now, but when his masters no long require his services, he should expect to join the rest of us, standing on the outside looking in, watching the swells dance past the windows with nary a glance our way.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com