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Two Pitchers Full of Warm Spit?

The vice presidency was, said the first man to fill the position, the most insignificant office humanity had ever devised. It was another vice president who compared it to what, in a gentler day, the press called a pitcherful of warm spit.

Tonight’s debate more or less lived up to the office. The current pitcherful, Biden, was rude and blustering. The aspiring pitcherful, Paul Ryan, was clearly taken aback and unable to develop an effective response. Both debaters scored some points here and there, but it’s unlikely that many voters wanted either of these gentlemen at the top of their respective tickets.

Yet for all that, something got done and the debate effectively conveyed the current unsatisfactory state of American politics. The Democrats have a system that they like but don’t know how to preserve; the Republicans think change is needed but aren’t very clear about exactly what they want to put in place of the Democratic system now crumbling around us. The Democrats think the world is a mess, don’t really know how to fix it and would like to cut the defense budget; the Republicans think the world is a mess, don’t really know how to fix it and think we need a stronger defense.

A rational person could vote for the Democrats on the grounds that the Republicans aren’t ready to govern until they can talk more credibly about what a new system would look like. And a rational person could vote for the Republicans on the grounds that the Democrats will simply make things worse by spending money we don’t have to prop up a system they can’t save.

In a perfect world, an impasse like that should lead to an era of modest politics and bipartisan goodwill. In the real world both Republicans and Democrats feel frustrated and angry.  We are polarized and partisan not because either party has a strong set of ideas but because neither party has solutions big enough for our problems and the sense that things aren’t right combined with a lack of solutions is making us all just a little bit cranky.

The debate is likely to have very little impact on the polls. Last time around the country was trying to make its mind up about Sarah Palin, and there was a certain drama to the vice presidential debate. This year the country doesn’t much care about either Biden or Ryan; both seem reasonably well qualified to fill an office once occupied by such memorable luminaries as Daniel P. Tompkins, William R. King, Henry Wilson, William Wheeler, Garret Hobart and Charles Curtis. Paul Ryan doesn’t seem to be ready to be president yet, and Joe Biden looked as if will never be ready — but then the very large majority of American vice presidents serve out their time in obscurity and are never heard from again.


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