Thursday night’s televised argument between Biden and Ryan has generated plenty of comment about the performance of each man, and “performance” is the appropriate word. These staged encounters between political rivals are not really “debates” any more than the theatrics of the Congress are “deliberations.” The contenders grin, grimace and generally mug for the camera, posturing to appear thoughtful and reflective, or combative and aggressive, as they have been coached.
The Vice Presidential debate had little national security content, but the subject led the discussion, principally because the mess in Libya has recently been so much in the news. Indeed, the day began with a contentious Congressional hearing on the subject.
To those who have fought in actual ground combat, the question of what actually happened in Libya was clear from the beginning: Attacks using small arms, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars do not occur spontaneously, and they require targeting, organization, preparation and rehearsal. It may have seemed like good politics to portray the tragedy as beyond the administration’s control, but that was a foolish thing to do, and somebody at the top of the military food chain should have advised the White House not to try it. Perhaps someone did, and he was rebuffed, but this case of misrepresenting the truth should serve as a lesson to everyone in office: bad news doesn’t get any better with age. The attempt to explain malfeasance by splitting hairs- during both the hearing and the debate- merely compounds the error and makes the administration appear not just inept but mendacious as well.
But Biden and the Democrats also have a point: Republican obstructionism is dangerous to our national defense. We began the conflicts in Southwest Asia with a weak national security force structure, and we will begin confronting a new phalanx of threats- most of them far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein- weaker still. Congress has been nonchalant about sequestration, but if automatic budget cuts do occur, it will be quite a disaster, and Republicans will have to shoulder the blame. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently complained loudly and bitterly that we are dangerously exposed to crippling cyberattacks, but defense hawks were complicit in organizing resistance to a defense of this burgeoning threat. Yes, the timing of Panetta’s warning was carefully selected for maximum partisan political effect, but that doesn’t change the huge importance of the problem.
Mark Twain, Will Rogers and a host of other brilliant cynics were properly disdainful of the narcissistic nature of American politics. The fact is that politicians themselves also understand that a thin veneer can disguise the ugliness of a deeply unsettling process, that in politics the truth matters only a little, and that in the voting booth appearance is reality.