A saying among lawyers is that, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
The point is that when the stakes are too high and too personal, a lawyer is likely to forget courtroom decorum. His debates will devolve into the sort of rant that Vice President Joe Biden demonstrated Thursday.
In a courtroom or a formal debate, Biden would not simply have lost, he would have been ejected. He was rude and sarcastic. He interrupted constantly. He was a barroom brawler taking on a polished barrister. He was mad, and his anger prevented him from following the most basic rules of civil debate.
What Biden demonstrated was that the plight of poor and middle class Americans is so personal to him that he can’t mingle with polite society when advocating their position.
Biden lost the debate. But this was a political event as well as a debate, and Biden won the event.
Understand that what Biden is claiming — and what millions of Americans believe — is incendiary. It is the sort of claim that disrupts polite social events.
He is not just claiming that Romney and Ryan are proposing the wrong policies, but that they have an ulterior motive in doing so.
The Affordable Care Act is a good example. The law, according to several studies, will save the lives of many of the 26,000 people per year who currently die because they have no health insurance (45,000 according to another study). So when Romney or Ryan embark on their explanations about the evils of a law that — by the way — decreases the deficit, I suspect Biden’s eyes glaze over. He hears them coming up with all kinds of high-brow theories justifying the death of 26,000 poor people a year and he wants to scream.
He heard Ryan’s glib reassurance that the GOP plan will save Social Security, and he laughed. Openly and derisively.
Why? Because Ryan hates Social Security, notwithstanding the benefits he received from it.
“Social Security right now is a collectivist system,” Ryan said in 2005. “It’s a welfare transfer system.” It is, he continued, a “socialist based system.”
Ryan shows the same passion about his desire to “save” Medicare, and Biden can’t restrain himself. Why? Because Ryan’s original budget proposal — before politicians descended to make its goals less transparent — would have destroyed Medicare. It would have raised the eligibility age from 65 to 67. Instead of guaranteed benefits, Ryan’s plan called for a voucher system that included no safeguards that the amount would be adequate to cover basic health care. It included no option for people to continue on conventional Medicare.
So Biden is, I suspect, both astonished at Ryan’s audacity and frustrated at Americans’ gullibility. Ryan has made it clear he wants to end Medicare and Social Security for ideological reasons, yet voters seem willing to accept the smooth claim that his goal is to save them.
Biden’s rudeness at the debate, grating as it was, left many with hope that the deed to our political system has not yet been transferred to the highest bidders. Soon, both parties will recognize their survival depends on their subservience to corporate wealth. On Thursday, though, Biden did not sound like a man who was taking marching orders from rich people who want to be richer. He seemed the last man crying out a warning to the poor and middle class as wealth drowns out effective democracy.
In a deliberate contrast to Mitt Romney’s statement that the 47 percent of Americans who have wages too low to pay income tax will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Biden pointed at politicians who pander to wealthy contributors:
“It’s about time they take some responsibility here,” Biden said. “And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bringing back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class, ‘We’re going to level the playing field; we’re going to give you a fair shot again. We are going to not repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of rules for Wall Street and Main Street, by making sure that we continue to hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super wealthy.’ ”
Biden was a bully on Thursday. He was furious and unrestrained. He lost the debate on points, but he showed his compassion for the American majority. Biden warned that, if short-sighted plutocrats seal their control of our nation, the people will suffer.
“You probably detected my frustration with their attitude about the American people,” Biden said in his closing. “My friend (Ryan) says that 30 percent of the American people are ‘takers.’ Romney points out 47 percent of the people won’t take responsibility. He’s talking about my mother and father. … He’s talking about the people that have built this country.
“All they’re looking for is an even shot,” Biden continued. “Whenever you give them the shot, they’ve done it. They’ve done it. Whenever you’ve leveled the playing field, they’ve been able to move.”
Biden is too passionate to be a good debater. Many Americans, though, are more interested in his passion than in his debating skills.