Each week in Civil Discussion, Ben Bartlett (who majored in Political Theory) and Richard Clark (a political spectator who is friends with a guy who majored in Political Theory) discuss political events as they happen over email, hashing out the meaning and manipulations behind them. Also just being bros. 

Ben: Rich I asked if you wanted to play Borderlands 2, and I got a speech. I asked if I could use your bathroom, and I got a speech. I asked if we really needed to do a column this week, and I got a speech.

Number 2, I can’t believe you wanted to spend 15 minutes writing this thing when I wanted to spend 20. Can’t you just reach out and agree that we have problems and we should solve them and things like that?

Richard: Okay so. I am trying to play along here but I honestly can’t figure out if you’re doing a Ryan impression or a Biden impression. You sound mad, so it must be Biden, right?

Oh wait no. Yep that’s Ryan. I remember now.

This is one of those debates where everybody thinks their guy won, right?

Ben: I’m glad you were confused, because I was sorta switching back and forth.

As long as your guy goes up there and doesn’t bomb it, you think he won. That’s the beauty of confirmation bias. What always surprises me is the extreme importance we place on the following:

  1. Zingers – Why is this important?
  2. Plan specifics – Has any President EVER given a ton of specifics and then followed through by getting that exact plan passed in Congress? Why is this so important to us?
  3. Coming across like you think you’re smarter than the other guy – shouldn’t you think you’re smarter than the other guy?

I ignore those things, which makes watching debates a pretty sad experience since policy dies a quick death when it rings in at priority number four or so.

What was your impression of the two guys?

Richard: Personally, if a guy says he can pull off something that sounds like magic I want to know how he might do it. That’s why I think Biden was insisting on statistics. But to be honest, I wasn’t following the whole conversation because, well..

DUDE they were just yelling over each other for like 65% of that debate! Maybe a reality-tv obsessed america enjoyed it, but I felt like I was trapped between my uncle and my cousin at Thanksgiving dinner. And it was one of those situations where Biden’s going to get most of the blame for being arrogant and rude, but I feel like Ryan has his own special way of pulling off smug so that he doesn’t get caught.

Still, a lot of good content in this debate. Just so much heat. So much bluster, to use Biden’s word.

And since it’s the name of our column: it just wasn’t very civil. On the civil scale I give it like 4/10 malarkeys.

Ben: No argument from me.

I was glad Ryan resisted the introvert’s urge (so clearly on display by President Obama last week) to pull into himself and get grumpy. I think he came off a little better in terms of calmness and not being overly rude.

At the same time, whatever points Biden lost in being argumentative and annoying he may have made up for by pointing out how canned and slippery some of Ryan’s answers were. He was like a highlighter–ugly on the page, but useful for pointing out mistakes.

One interesting dynamic in this discussion was that Biden was able to keep referring to what “we” did because he has concrete knowledge of why choices were made, whereas Ryan had to attempt to describe in hypothetical terms how a Romney presidency would have been subtly different.

Speaking of hypotheticals, as someone who doesn’t spend much time thinking about entitlement programs, who did you feel seemed more solid on the question of Medicare and Social Security?

Richard: Heck if I know. I was trying to follow the bouncing ball but they were throwing it at each other’s heads. Ryan’s thing about the age-cap or whatever made a lot of sense. But sometimes the pizza isn’t as hot when you take it out of the oven.

Can you tell I’m feeling intimidated in the face of your highlighter thing? That’s maybe the best political metaphor I’ve heard this entire campaign season. That’s going in the facebook blurb right there.

Ben: I CAN tell that you’re intimidated, because like a good politician you responded with a statement that makes zero sense and yet sounds homey and comfortable. I want pizza now.

I guess my conclusions are these:

  • Biden gets a B for being as verbose as ever and for encouraging people to be annoyed by Ryan’s lack of specifics (though I still say that shouldn’t be as important as people make it). But he’s not really A material because he’s obnoxious and interrupts a lot and whines about not being treated fairly even so.
  • Ryan gets a B- for staying cool and for making a few really strong points about some serious weaknesses in the current administration. But he’s not really A material because CNN did an exclusive on the incredible preparation he put into this thing, and yet he still sounded like a seminary student preaching his first sermon (canned, over prepared, and a little over earnest).
  • Finally, if the worst should happen, I can be comfortable with either of these guys as president for two or three years. That, ahem, was not true of the last VP debate.

Richard: I give them both an A- because they both seem like perfectly pleasant people with basic human flaws and they seem like they were just playing their little hearts out out there.

In the end, I think this vice presidential debate confirms: we (not just us, but them, reading this right now – yes, you) are going to have a hard time talking to each other about these things. If good old Biden can’t (or won’t) keep it together on national television and keep his cool and be cool to Ryan for an hour and a half, what chance do the rest of us have, with much less on the line? Let’s learn a lesson from Ryan: it’s something we have to work at, I think.

And that’s maybe the toughest part: keeping cool, being cool, all while staying true and being truthful. Ben, it’s nearly impossible, because we want our way. Sometimes I think these election seasons will just end in a fireball of explosive arguing. I know they say it every cycle, but this year it seems not merely worse, but purposeful.

These guys are rallying their base. And that scares me, because I just want to talk about this.

Ben: You make a good point. At one place in the debate, Ryan brought up the classic buzz line, “We need to work together in a bi-partisan way…” and Biden just about fell out of his chair. And strangely, I agree with Biden. Bi-partisanship isn’t happening and we aren’t getting any closer to a way of getting it to happen again. What will happen if our government continues to tie itself into knots and can’t get anything done?

We call this column Civil Discussion because it’s what you and I want to have, but in another sense it’s also our aspiration for the public square. Tonight’s debate didn’t really do anything to suggest we’re on the path toward that goal.

Rich: :-(


  1. I am really enjoying these–what are you guys going to talk about though when there aren’t any more debates going down?

    I watched the Today Show for few minutes this morning long enough to see Donald Trump interviewed about his upcoming Celebrity Apprentice season. As a well known and outspoken republican who actually considered running for president, he was naturally asked a few questions about the recent debates and the upcoming election. Trump was asked if the Mitt Romney we are seeing now is the same Mitt Romney that we saw in the Republican primaries. Implied in that question was the idea that since winning the GOP nomination, Romney has moved more to the center of the isle so as to appeal more to independents.

    I think it was a fair question. Trump didn’t really answer it and just said, “I think Romney is a great candidate.”

    This sorta illustrated what you guys brought up about how hard it is for us to talk about politics and how the idea of politicians reaching across the isle to do what is best for America is perhaps noble but also laughable at this point in our current political climate.

    That is REALLY sad to me. I get why Savannah Gutherie (sp?) asked Trump that question because in the Republican primaries the race almost seemed like a competition to see who could articulate a plan for Washington that would offer the least amount of cooperation with democrats.

    I think its true of both sides–both the Dem and Rep base seem to view reaching across the isle as a sign of weakness when I think that we ought to see that as a strength and maybe even a sign of wisdom.

    In other words, we (meaning the average american) are a big part of the problem as to why there is so little bi-partisan cooperation. The result is that our political discussions are rarely, if ever, productive.

    Anyway, I have high hopes for this column, that maybe it will be one of the few places in the world where some productive political discussion can take place.

  2. Thanks Drew!

    One of the things that made Rich and I fairly confident about writing this column is that this is basically the way we’ve been talking to each other over e-mail for the past 5 years. Although we probably rip on each other less in this column than in real life.

    Pop culture is fully of silly, unhelpful, angry conversations and I think we’re going to enjoy revealing our thought process about the positives and negatives in those conversations.

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