A Little Less Stuff

Gregory L. Schneider, October 2012

Gregory SchneiderPresidential debates today offer “a lot of stuff,” maybe even some “malarkey,” as Joe Biden might say. Vice-presidential debates typically offer a little less stuff, but a lot more malarkey, and this one was no exception. In no other vice-presidential debate in the short history of such things, has there been more “debatus interruptus”--smiling, grinning, laughing, and downright rudeness--than in this year’s junior-weight championship. If Joe Biden had brought a cane with him, he may have been tempted to hit Ryan over the head a la Preston Brooks to Charles Sumner in 1856. Ryan, to his credit, took it all in stride and was polite (maybe too much so) but Biden’s strategy was to be aggressive where President Obama had been passive a week earlier. Who knows what people will think of Biden’s teeth and raised eyebrows? That is for twitter to sort out.

On Afghanistan, there was a bit of a replay of the old Aiken strategy from the Vietnam War. Senator George Aiken (R-Vt) famously declared in 1966 that in South Vietnam, we should declare victory and get out. It was more elegantly stated than I am remembering it, but that was the gist of what Aiken said. Flash forward to the quagmire of Afghanistan and we have Joe Biden claiming the same thing: 2014 is a firm withdrawal date at which time, he reiterated to Ryan at several points, the US will declare victory and get out.  It was a nice strategy for Vietnam and maybe tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars may have been spared if such a strategy were implemented. The question, then as now is: Would it work? What follows in the wake of military withdrawal? Timetables are nice but Ryan effectively answered that the enemy knows what you are doing and can act accordingly. That was a problem for the Aiken strategy in 1966 and the same problem for the Obama strategy in 2012.

In what turned out to be one of the more heated areas of the debate, the two candidates argued over what sometimes may be called “the forgotten war.” Clearly the war in Afghanistan under Obama has not produced the same passions as the Iraq War under Bush. Yet here were the two “Veep” candidates arguing about the strategy for withdrawal from the conflict, perhaps not with the same passion as politicians argued about Vietnam, but with similar historical allusions----a kind of should we stay or should we go-like quality that should make Senator Aiken smile from beyond the beyond.

As to historical importance, I guess I would equate the debate to a counterfactual: What if Hubert Humphrey had debated William Miller (remember him?) back in 1964. That election, a choice not an echo, came closest in theme to the election this year. And the choice of Paul Ryan as the VP candidate by Mitt Romney (who I am not equating with Barry Goldwater, albeit many historical colleagues probably would), raised a House figure to national prominence. Unlike Miller, however, Ryan has policy credibility, is an expert on budgetary matters, and held his own against the experienced Biden. If you could imagine Humphrey debating Miller back in 1964 one could reasonably see similar themes—the growth of government spending, tax policy (though Johnson had just cut taxes, so he was like John Kennedy), civil rights (not a topic in 2012), war in Vietnam and war in the Middle East. The differences in views between the two parties, then and now, are striking, which suggests that the polarities in the parties have only hardened and widened since that landslide election in 1964, the last one won by a true liberal running as one. "Hope and change," by itself, does not a New Deal or Great Society liberal make.

The only difference between 1964 and 2012 is that Hubert Humphrey, a decent man (like the current Vice-President) was more serious and would not have guffawed his way through the debate. Somewhere, Pat Paulson is happy—a comedian finally made his way to a national ticket.

Gregory L. Schneider is professor of history at Emporia State University.