Six Degrees of Democracy
I just spent an hour or so watching a Joe Biden "Iowa Town Hall" event on C-SPAN. Laugh if you want--I ackowledge this isn't normal, or necessarily healthy--but it was terrific. And it got me thinking, again, about how unwieldy and ineffective our "democratic process" really is.
I've followed Biden's career for almost 20 years. His father and my paternal grandfather were very close friends, and I got to spend a few hours one afternoon with him when I was a senior in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. He couldn't have been more pleasant, gracious and thoughtful, and even brought me into a meeting with environmental advocates, introducing me as an intern or assistant or something. I've always seen him as a throwback Democrat in the best sense--a foreign policy centrist and pocketbook-issues liberal who would have been comfortable with the Kennedys and other icons of the postwar period. He's made some awful votes, most memorably for me on the 2005 bankruptcy bill (the credit card companies in Delaware probably rendered that a matter of political survival, but still), but on most of the big and small issues, he's gotten it right.
Even for me, though, the Biden of substance--hell, the Biden my family ties compelled me to esteem--had been obscured by the endlessly talkative caricature who was prone to take figurative aim at his own feet with errors like calling Barack Obama "clean." And certainly when it comes to celebrity starpower and fundraising prowess, Biden has been rendered an afterthought in this campaign by Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom I imagine gall him with their soundbite-friendly campaigning and transparent focus on winning the election rather than thinking through the issues. (I should add here that I was thinking about Biden a bit even before seeing the C-SPAN broadcast, thanks to this worthwhile interview on foreign policy that he gave to Salon last week.)
That was all wiped away after watching Biden for an hour and change, about half of which was him speaking with the remainder for audience questions. Before the 30 or 40 Iowans in the room, Biden showed himself by turns to be thoughtful, well-informed, biting, analytical, passionate and funny. He memorably characterized Iraq as "the boulder in the road" blocking progress toward both tackling other, deeper-rooted foreign problems and "the issues that made me a Democrat"--health care and trade. He didn't run from his long service in the Senate, but rather explained why it was an asset in a president; how he'd spent his adult life informing himself about the key issues of our time, and why he believed himself to be the best person for the job.
At the end of all this, Annie and I were both deeply impressed. But I felt no differently about Biden's chances as I had beforehand: they're negligible.
Aside from people who actually attend these events, and a few thousand weirdos watching C-SPAN, nobody will get to see that impressive Joe Biden. A couple million at most will watch him struggle to spit out thoughtful answers in thirty to sixty second chunks while onstage with six or seven other Democrats, there essentially on sufferance from the networks who would prefer just to engage with the celebrity candidates. Perhaps ten or twenty times that many will read a line or two in a press story or see a ten-second clip on TV about Biden's debate performance, within an article or segment that, again, focuses on the "leading contenders."
I know this isn't an original thought, nor is it unique to this election cycle or the Democratic Party. But it's troubling anew to think about how distorted this process really is, and how far the endeavor of winning election has drifted from the much more significant task of governing.