The character of Selina Meyer—the fictional vice president in Armando Iannucci’s comedy series, Veep—reminds us that Americans usually don’t take the job of deputy commander in chief too seriously. Whereas presidents elicit respect even from their political opponents, veeps and would-be veeps have been providing gag writers with material for generations.
Current veep Joe Biden certainly sought to play last Thursday’s vice-presidential debate for laughs. Embarrassingly for Democrats, the laughs were mainly his own. Guffawing, chortling—all but slapping his thighs and wiping away the tears—Biden might equally well have been arguing about the relative merits of whiskey and poteen in a hostelry with a name like “The Shamrock.”
This was old-school Irish-American politics. If Biden had passed around a hat at the end to raise money for famished nuns in County Cork, it would not have seemed out place.
His opponent, by contrast, was more like the earnest young parish priest who has been sent to coax wicked Uncle Joe out of the pub and into the church. Father Paul did his best, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. I lost count of the number of times Biden interrupted his Republican rival. Paul Ryan’s patience was more than priestly; at times, it was almost saintly.
It was predictable that Biden would bring up Mitt Romney’s now notorious reference at a fundraiser to the “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what, ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it ... [and] who pay no income tax.” Biden added a jab at Paul Ryan, accusing him of having said in a speech that “30 percent of the American people are takers.”
“These people are my mom and dad,” fulminated the vice president, “the people I grew up with, my neighbors ... They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now ...”
Last year, in the heyday of Occupy Wall Street, it was all about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. But now Democrats want to make membership of the 47 percent a badge of honor.
This language of percentiles strikes me as transitional. Americans have never been comfortable with the language of class—hence the strange phenomenon that all candidates, including both Biden and Ryan, now claim to represent the middle class. But the voters have absorbed the idea of politics as a zero-sum game, in which resources are redistributed through the systems of taxation and welfare—hence all the percents.
Yet the reality is that the real distributional issue the country faces is not between percentiles but between generations. As Paul Ryan put it in a powerful peroration, which temporarily silenced the ranting to his right, “A debt crisis is coming. We can’t keep spending and borrowing like this. We can’t keep spending money we don’t have.”
You don’t need to take this from Paul Ryan. In its latest “World Economic Outlook,” the International Monetary Fund points out that the U.S. public debt now exceeds 100 percent of GDP. The last time debt was this high, the IMF shows, the results were an “unexpected burst of inflation” and policies of “financial repression.” But that combination doesn’t look likely today—which means the debt is going to be around for years to come. More importantly, in the absence of the kind of reforms of Medicare, Social Security, and the tax system that Paul Ryan has long advocated, it’s going to keep on growing.
Already a staggering $16 trillion, the debt represents nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren.
Pressed for a clear answer on what he and President Obama intend to do about the debt crisis, Biden responded with what the Irish call blarney. “The president and I,” he declared, “are not going to rest until ... they [presumably the universal middle class to which everyone belongs] can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK.’”
What we saw last week was not just a contrast between Irish-American political styles. We saw the opening round in the clash of generations that will soon dominate American politics. If Laughing Uncle Joe—who turns 70 this year—has nothing better to offer than “It’s going to be OK,” then I suspect a surprisingly large number of younger voters will turn instead to young Father—and future veep—Paul Ryan.