Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Vice Presidents Should Still Act like Presidents
While polls show that those surveyed consider Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate with Barack Obama by landslide proportions, the vice presidential debate will probably be perceived as more of a tie. Democrats who went in primed to like Joe Biden will applaud his slash-and-burn aggressiveness. Republicans who went in primed to like Paul Ryan will applaud his wonky Boy Scout earnestness. In the end, this vice presidential debate, like most, will have little impact on the electoral outcome. But the big question this debate raised is one of debating dignity. Biden’s performance – and he was clearly performing – included smirking, scoffing, chuckling, and guffawing, although he seems to have mostly skipped the sighing which hurt Al Gore’s standing in 2000 when he debated George W. Bush.
The quest for dignity is as old as the republic. It reflects America’s more elitist and character-oriented republican roots, as well as the monarchical dimensions involved in executive leadership. Originally, the candidate’s virtue as expressed through his dignity was so cherished it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to run, they stood for election, as George Washington did. But the waves of democracy that transformed America also changed campaigning protocols, launching candidates into the hurly burly of the political process.
Of course, these restrictions apply more to presidents and potential presidents than vice presidents. And there is a strong counter-tradition – which Biden clearly embraced – of the Veep or Veep nominee as tough campaigner, partisan mudslinger, and hatchet man – or woman. In 1900, when William McKinley ran for re-election against the charismatic William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s running mate Theodore Roosevelt fought hard against the activist Bryan. Roosevelt delivered 673 speeches to an estimated three million people, while Bryan’s 546 speeches reached approximately 2.5 million Americans. As Roosevelt denounced Bryan and the Democrats for appealing “to every foul and evil passion of mankind,” resorting to “every expedient of mendacity and invective,” McKinley remained presidentially above the fray.
Half a century later, Richard Nixon did the dirty work for President Dwight Eisenhower – and then expected his vice president Spiro Agnew to fight the partisan wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s against those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” reporters and Democrats. Most recently, in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric was far harsher than Barack Obama’s, her running mate John McCain’s, or her opponent, Joe Biden’s.
Republicans are already encouraging a backlash against Biden’s antics. Whether this will become a broader phenomenon remains to be seen. But, even with all the handwringing over Obama’s passivity last week, Biden should have been more restrained. His behavior turned ugly not just undignified at the end, when Paul Ryan tried to conclude on a gracious note of respect toward the Vice President, and Biden kept clowning rather than rising to the moment. Although his position is modified by the word “Vice,” America’s number two leader should still act like a president.