Joe Biden is Obama's secret weapon

Mitt Romney has a credibility problem.

Shepard Smith, the Fox news anchor, was talking about Mitt Romney's "friendship" with Newt Gingrich when he said it, but the sentiment could apply categorically.

"Politics is weird. And creepy. And now I know lacks even the loosest attachment to anything like reality."

I laugh every time I watch that video.

There is indeed something weird about Romney's singular focus on the economy when he, as the former head of a private-equity firm that bought and dismantled companies for profit, knows as much about job creation as a butcher knows about animal husbandry.

There's something creepy about a Republican ignoring tried-and-true red-meat issues, like gay marriage or immigration or "religious liberty," with which Republicans are historically good at dividing and suppressing votes.

And there's something truly surreal about Romney's avoidance of the words "George W. Bush." In Florida last week, Romney said that Obama doubled the national debt but didn't mention the part about the stimulus program, the auto bailout and the fact that George W. Bush added $4 trillion to the debt. (In fact, it was Vice President Dick Cheney who said deficits don't matter.) Evidently, Romney is banking on memory loss but just to be sure, he's avoiding Bush's name so as not to remind us where much of that debt actually came from.

Yet there was a moment of clarity last week of the kind that comes from having the scales fall from your eyes to see the truth about America's classless society. The Obama campaign released a video about the time Bain Capital, the Wall Street firm Romney once headed, took ownership of a steel mill in Kansas City. Former workers recalled Bain loading the mill up with debt, filing for bankruptcy, firing employees, closing the mill, shirking pension obligations, and walking away with a smile.

Let me say this. My father is a truck driver. He hauled steel for more than a decade. He was proud, as most white working-class men are, and he saw what happens when rich guys take over a steel mill. They don't care about the important stuff, only money, and even when they have "enough," as my dad would say, they want more until the company is bled to death. The Obama camp was careful to avoid appearing to be anti-private equity (since so many firm directors give to the Democratic Party), just anti-vulture capitalism. But that kind of hairsplitting means little to working-class men like my father. They know the truth when they see it.

Shortly after it released the video, the Obama campaign released "The Biden," as they like to say. That is, Joe Biden, the vice president, who actually comes from working-class stock. Picking Biden as his running mate was brilliant, but we didn't see it as such four years ago. With the economy still humping along, with Romney as the richest man ever to run for the White House, with unlimited sums of money being poured into this election -- all this makes it crystal clear why a cool and rational wonk like Obama needs a pulpit-pounder like Biden.

The campaign "released" Biden on Youngstown, Ohio, an old mill town gone to seed like rest of the Rust Belt that rings around the Great Lakes. In a speech, Biden took on the notion that complaints about inequality and injustice are rooted in envy. "[Romney] doesn't get what's at the core of all this. It's about people's dignity." He went on:

I resent when they talk about families like mine, what I grew up in. I resent the fact that they think we're talking about envy. It's job-envy. It's wealth-envy. That we don't dream. My mother and my father believed that if I wanted to, I could be President of the United States, I could be Vice President. My mother and father believed that if my brother and sister wanted to be a millionaire, they could be a millionaire. My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don't get us. They don't get who we are.

As Bob Moser, of the American Prospect, said: "This wasn’t Obama’s brand of 'class warfare,' which never actually sounds like a declaration of war. This was righteous fury. The real thing. From the gut."

Biden's right. Romney has a credibility problem. He told college students that a simple solution to the rising cost of tuition is to borrow from your parents. He made a bet with Rick Perry (who didn't accept) for $10,000. He said speaking fees of over $300,000 "wasn't much money." And he said his wife drives not one but two Cadillacs.

There's another reason why Romney "doesn't get what's at the core of all this." As the American economy has shown signs of tepid but incremental improvement, Romney has pivoted to focus on debt. The hope, I suspect, is that talk about the national debt will sound so big and scary, as it did two summers ago, that Romney will seem to be the most sensible choice.

But most people don't understand debt, and they don't want to. They understand their own (which is bad), but not the federal government's (which might be good, it depends). What they do understand is jobs. Their jobs and the jobs of the people they love. I'd bet that in the minds of most Americans, the national deficit is big and scary, and somebody ought to do something about it, but it's not as pressing or immediately felt as losing one's job, health insurance, home -- or sense of dignity.

Perhaps politics does lack even the loosest attachments to reality. That's certainly a luxury Romney and the others of the 1 percent can afford. For the rest us, though, this is the real thing. Life lived from the gut.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Photo: Getty
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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