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Politics as Television

Oct. 16, 2012
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Even though a vice presidential debate is usually about as important and fully as thrilling as a thumb-wrestling championship, the face-off between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan took on special significance.

By the standards of reality television, President Barack Obama’s failure to even make the pretense of mud-wrestling with Republican Mitt Romney in their first debate flopped in the ratings.

So everyone knew Biden would have to be much more aggressive in his debate with Ryan. Nostalgic Jerry Springer fans even dreamed of chairs being thrown.

For Ryan, the stakes were entirely different. It’s almost as unusual for a little-known Midwestern congressman to be on the national ticket as, say, some ditzy mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

A congressman doesn’t even have a statewide constituency. The only reason Ryan was thrust onto the biggest stage of his life was because he was championed by extreme, right-wing ideologues within the Republican Party.

Vice presidential candidates don’t determine elections. But even in a losing campaign, a candidate gets tons of national exposure, builds up political IOUs and networks across the country and is often near the head of the line for the party’s nomination four years later.

That might be even better than cooling your heels for eight years in an often meaningless job.

For Democrats, eager for a passionate performance in support of Obama’s re-election, Biden crushed it, dominating the debate. He hit nearly every fact and correction Obama’s supporters had been yelling at Romney on their TV screens the week before.

Since Republicans couldn’t refute the substance of Biden’s arguments, they attacked him for smiling and laughing at Ryan’s performance. 

Actually, Biden has a great smile. And laughter was the appropriate response to Ryan’s most dishonest assertions.

As Biden pointed out, Ryan was pretending the second-worst economic crisis in American history “just fell out of the sky.”  Biden identified major causes—Ryan and other Republicans voting for two wars without paying for them and an unfunded Medicare drug program creating big profits for pharmaceutical companies at the same time Republicans were giving millionaires and billionaires enormous tax cuts.


Ryan’s Destructive Policies

And how did our local boy, Ryan, do? Well, the truth is he probably didn’t hurt himself a bit. That could bode well for his political future but have serious consequences for all the rest of us. 

Ryan is a good-looking young man with the ability to bat his blue eyes at a TV camera and sound perfectly reasonable as he espouses some of the most dangerous ideas in politics today.

Ryan talks about destroying the guarantee of Medicare for seniors and replacing it with a voucher system that would pay for less and less health care on the private market.

He’s supported privatizing Social Security, which could wipe out the minimal retirement income of seniors just like 401(k)s, pensions and other private investments were wiped out during the horrendous recession.

All of this is not to reduce the deficit a dime, but rather to give even more major tax cuts to the super-wealthy.

Every time Ryan claims he’s proposing drastic changes to Medicare and Social Security to make them stronger, he sounds exactly like the general in Vietnam who said he had to destroy a village in order to save it.

At times during Ryan’s intentionally vague debate rhetoric, his true extremism broke through, but you had to listen pretty carefully.

ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz, an excellent moderator asking challenging questions, tried to pin down Biden and Ryan, both Catholics, on how their religion affected their positions on abortion and women’s health. Only Biden favored allowing Americans to make their own moral decisions.

Biden said he followed his church’s teachings on abortion in his personal life, but he recognized it was wrong to impose his church’s teachings by law on Americans who follow other religions or have different beliefs.

Ryan said personally he didn’t believe abortion should be permitted even for rape, incest or to save a mother’s life, but that Romney would allow those exceptions.

Instead of unelected judges protecting a woman’s right to choose, Ryan said he favored legislators passing laws imposing his Catholic beliefs upon everyone—even though he certainly wouldn’t accept the religious beliefs of others being imposed on him.

Biden may have won the debate, but Ryan succeeded in playing a nice, earnest, non-threatening young man on national television.

The last dangerous Republican politician to come out of Wisconsin, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was finally brought down when his televised anti-Communist hearings in 1954 showed him to be a crude, thuggish, dishonest bully.

Since television demeanor plays such a major role in politics today, just think how much more damage McCarthy could have done if he had been a good-looking young man with a real talent for faking earnest sincerity on TV while advocating dishonest, destructive policies.


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