Apparently, sneering comedian Don Rickles was Vice President Joe Biden's coach for his debate with Paul Ryan. And maybe TV psychotherapist Dr. Phil rehearsed Ryan, at least in part.
Biden's countenance, a blend of smirk, sarcasm, and "now-let-me-tell-you-something-you-young-whippersnapper" smarminess has been much noted in post-debate commentary.
Biden must have gotten confused about the venue and thought he was taping a celebrity roast in the style of Dean Martin's 1970s soirees, in which Don Rickles' jabbing satire was a highlight.
It works for Rickles, but doesn't for the Vice President of the United States.
Nor did Ryan's inappropriate attempt to humanize Mitt Romney, the super-starched GOP presidential nominee. The reference to Romney's generosity to a Massachusetts family grieving the injury of their children in an automobile accident was as mechanical as one would expect from a policy wonk. It was as if Ryan suddenly recalled the page in the debate briefing book telling him to "empathize here and humanize Romney."
It was also insensitive to Biden, awakening the pain he suffered as a young husband and father when his wife and small daughter were killed in a car crash. I worked in Washington at the time, and even those of us who were Biden's political opponents grieved for and with him. In fact, many of us respected the strength, dignity, and evidence of strong faith Biden demonstrated in that horrific period.
Rather than the intense emotion of the memory thrust into the debate throwing him, Biden handled it well. Ryan's insertion of the Romney story could be considered a low blow, in light of Biden's huge bereavement. It was not intended that way, but Ryan showed us that wonks need to stay with policy. Just as the nation doesn't need a Don Rickles for Vice President, neither does it need a Dr. Phil a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
America needs all the help with policy it can get. But not the type offered by Biden, who spoke much about his and President Obama's efforts to rescue the middle class. It's not so much Biden's help the middle class needs as it is protection from him and his policies.
We also learned that, while Biden's Catholicism means much to him personally, he feels a significant portion of its influence needs to be left at the altar and not guide his decisions as Vice President. Biden noted he is – like Ryan – a practicing Catholic. In fact, the Vice President said his religion "has significantly informed my social doctrine" when it comes to caring for those "who can't take care of themselves." A laudable sentiment.
However, Biden somehow believes babies in the womb, the major class of humans who can't take care of themselves, are not among those to be sheltered by the "social doctrines" shaped by the Roman Catholic Church. Biden personally accepts the Church's tenet that life begins in the womb, but says he will not allow that belief to shape his policy views on abortion.
Biden's faith seems to be a pick-and-choose affair. He apparently is a practicing Catholic at Church, but, on some issues at least, a practicing culturist at work. Some of his beliefs are shaped by his Church, and some are shaped by his culture. Ryan, no doubt, believes in the separation of Church and State, but not a rupture between doctrine and practice. "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith," said Ryan.
Neither Biden, the life-long practicing Catholic, nor Bill Clinton, Southern Baptist, nor Richard Nixon, the Quaker, got that point. Catholic Joe, philosophically at least, embraces Cecile Richards, of top abortion-provider Planned Parenthood, Baptist Bill not-so-philosophically embraced Monica Lewinsky, and Nixon embraced language and thought certainly not consistent with Quaker pietism.
Now America prepares to embrace as its Vice President either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan. The contrasts were well-displayed in the debate, but the nation must depend on much more than a television moment. A careful balance of principle and pragmatics must "inform" this decision – to borrow Biden's word.
Will it be the clown or the kid?