The Generation War

By David Brooks

So it was “The Honeymooners” versus “Family Ties”; Ed Norton versus Alex Keaton. What we saw Thursday night in the vice-presidential debate wasn’t only an argument about policy, it was a look at two different eras in American family life.

Vice President Joe Biden, of course, could stand on Neptune and distract attention away from the sun. He entered the Senate in 1973, back when the old Democratic giants from the New Deal era still roamed the earth. Every sentimental tone of voice, every ebullient and condescending grin brought you back to the kitchen tables in working-class Catholic neighborhoods of places like Scranton, Pa., Chicago, San Francisco, Providence, R.I., and Philadelphia.

That was a time, much more so than now, when there were still regional manners, regional accents and greater distance from the homogenizing influence of mass culture. That was a culture in which emotion was put out there on display — screaming matches between family members who could erupt in chest-poking fury one second and then loyalty until death affection the next.

Biden gave America the full opera Thursday night, and I suspect there will be as many reactions as there are partisan flavors. Democrats will obviously be cheered by his aggressive, impassioned and offensive performance.

It will be the crowning irony of the No Drama Obama campaign that it took a man who exudes more drama than a decade of Latin American soap operas to get Democrats out of their funk.

Biden clearly ended the psychic slide. He took it to Representative Paul Ryan on the inexplicability of the Republican tax plan. He had his best moments on the subjects in which Ryan is strongest, like budgets.

At the same time, my in-box was filled with a certain number of people who would be happy if they could spend the next few weeks delivering some punches to Biden, and not just Republicans. What do independents want most? They want people who will practice a more respectful brand of politics, who will behave the way most Americans try to behave in their dealings: respectfully, maybe even pausing to listen for a second. To them, Biden will seem like an off-putting caricature of the worst of old-style politics.

This is not just an issue of manners. It is: How are we going to practice the kind of politics that will help us avert the so-called fiscal cliff? How are we going to balance the crosscutting challenges, like increasing growth while reducing long-term debt?

A lot of people will look at Biden’s performance and see a style of politics that makes complex trade-offs impossible. The people who think this way swing general elections.

Ryan hails from a different era, not the era of the 1950s diner, but the era of the workout gym. By Ryan’s time, the national media culture was pervasive. The tone was cool, not hot. The meritocracy had kicked in and ambitious young people had learned to adopt a low friction manner. Ryan emerges from this culture in the same way Barack Obama does.

This is a generation armed with self-awareness. In this generation, you roll your eyes at anyone who is quite so flamboyantly demonstrative as the vice president.

In addition, Ryan was nurtured by the conservative policy apparatus, and he had a tendency Thursday night to talk about policy even when he was asked about character. I would not say he defined a personality as firmly as he might have, but he did an excellentjob of demonstrating policy professionalism. This debate was excessive in its attention to foreign policy — an arena that is a voting issue for very few. Ryan demonstrated amazing fluency, given how little time he has spent working in these areas.

He was strong on Obama’s economic failures, strong on the Libya debacle (though why do candidates always cram too many topics into their answers early in any debate), and he did have a few chances to highlight the Obama campaign’s crucial weaknesses: the relative absence of any positive agenda and the relative absence of any large plans for the next four years.

By the end, voters will have noticed one large irony. Emotionally, Biden dominated the night. Democrats were wondering if the Obama administration was a spent force, too exhausted to carry on. They don’t have to wonder about that anymore. But, substantively, it is the Romney-Ryan proposals that were the center of attention. Some of those proposals are unpopular (Medicare, which was woefully undercovered). Some are popular (taxes). But most of the discussion was on Romney plans because the other side just doesn’t have many.

This was a battle of generations. The age difference was the undercurrent of every exchange. The older man had the virility, but, in a way, that will seem antique to many.

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