Gresham’s Law of Currency states that bad money tends to drive out good money. For example, in 1964 we replaced silver dimes, quarters, and half-dollars with coins made of base metals. As soon as the new coins became available, the silver coins virtually disappeared from circulation. People spent the new coins and hoarded the old ones.
People hold onto what they believe is valuable, and try to fob off onto others what they believe is less valuable. But this principle may hold in fields other than money. We just saw evidence that it applies to political debates.
In fact, the evidence is so clear that I believe we should honor the process with the title of Biden’s Law of Debate:
When rude interruptions, speaking over the other candidate during his time, belittling the other candidate by laughing and face-making, and blatant partisanship by the moderator are introduced, these demeaning behaviors soon become acceptable – and they drive out and replace decent behavior.
Many reasons have been advanced to explain President Obama’s poor performance at the first debate. Was it a narcissistic assumption that no one could stand up to his brilliant mind and superb education? Was it a lazy reluctance to prepare? Was it a hazy notion of leftism that does not include actual knowledge of facts? Or was it simply that Obama had a bad night? Whatever the reason, the fact is that Romney did well and Obama did poorly.
But there is another fact that is even more significant. The first presidential debate was conducted as a debate should be, with dignity and decorum. The candidates did not speak over each other or interrupt each other. Jim Lehrer as moderator did a minimum of interrupting, and did not enter the debate himself. He acted as an impartial referee, and the candidates followed the Marquess of Queensbury Rules. But even so, Obama was allowed to speak three minutes longer than Romney.
Then came the vice-presidential debate. To say that Vice President Biden acted like a jackass would be to insult this patient, hard-working animal. He continually interrupted Congressman Ryan, spoke over him during Ryan’s time, laughed, gestured – and interjected insults like “malarkey,” “unbelievable,” and “a bunch of stuff” to belittle Ryan.
Moreover, Martha Raddatz acted less as a moderator and more as a participant. She attacked Ryan nine times and Biden once. She allowed Biden’s interruptions and clowning without complaint. To top things off, she allowed Biden to speak one minute longer than Ryan.
As a result, the vice-presidential debate degenerated into what we used to call a donnybrook – a wild free-for-all, fought without regard to the rules, and without an effective referee. But even our idea of a donnybrook did not include active participation by the referee on one side. If this were a boxing match, it would have been ruled “no contest,” and the referee would have his license suspended.
But that’s not the worst result of the Biden-Ryan debacle – excuse me, debate. The worst result was that it infected the second presidential debate, and unless we do something, it will create a terrible precedent for future political debates.
Yes, it’s true that Obama did better in the second debate. He was clearly better prepared than at the first debate, and more energetic and involved. That’s good – no matter which boxer we favor, we like to see a good fight. But Obama adopted some of the tactics of Biden, repeatedly interrupting Romney and talking over him during Romney’s time. Thankfully, he refrained from the more gross affectations of Biden. Obama didn’t laugh, grimace, wave his arms, or generally carry on like a bratty four-year-old.
So-called “moderator” Candy Crowley allowed Obama to interrupt and talk over Romney. She allowed Obama to talk 3 minutes longer. She interrupted Romney 28 times and Obama only nine times. She went so far as to contradict Romney regarding the attack on our consulate in Libya in which four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. She insisted that Romney was wrong, and that Obama did in fact call the attack “terrorism.”
But Crowley was incorrect. Obama did not refer to the consulate attack as terrorism until much later. On the contrary, he harshly condemned the brief, amateur video that insulted Islam, and sent his UN ambassador to claim that the video was the cause of the violence. If an ordinary person violated her job description as blatantly as Crowley did, she would be fired.
Anyone who still denies media bias is a fool. In 2016 – assuming we are still having elections – if Republicans again agree to debates with such biased “moderators,” they are bigger fools.
True, the second presidential debate did not descend to the Three Stooges level of the vice-presidential debate. But many people thought that Obama won, especially after Crowley’s outburst. They thought that Crowley caught Romney in a misstatement – as though that was her role. In my day, two-against-one was frowned upon as unfair, even cowardly. But now, the proponents of “fairness,” “equality,” “tolerance,” and “diversity” see Crowley as a hero.
People will watch the third presidential debate for various reasons. Some look forward to a tie-breaker. They want their man to win decisively. But I am waiting to discover whether Biden’s Law has taken hold.
Will Obama think, “I did better when I prepared thoroughly, so I’ll really prepare for the third debate”? Or will Obama think, “I did better when I imitated good old Joe’s antics, so I’ll do more of that in the third debate”?
And if Obama does another Biden imitation, how will Romney react? Will he continue to behave as is his nature – reserved, polite, respectful, mature? Or will he feel forced to descend to the level of “good old Joe”, as interpreted by Obama? It will go against his grain, but he may feel that he owes it to the nation.
If Romney does begin interrupting Obama, talking over him during Obama’s time, and generally acting rudely, the mainstream media will castigate Romney for disrespecting the president, and even for being a racist. So Romney will be damned if he does, but he risks losing the debate if he doesn’t.
This raises a deeper question: What does it mean to “lose”? Do we “lose” if we retain our honor and our dignity, and refuse to sink to the level of our opponent? Or if we do that, do we win in a less obvious but very real sense? That depends on the situation. If I am having a political discussion with a colleague, and instead of answering my arguments he calls me a “Nazi,” I can walk away and never speak to him again. I can retain my dignity.
But can a presidential candidate do that? Can he preserve his personal dignity, but at the cost of losing the debate – and perhaps losing the election to a man who has no respect for rules? Wouldn’t this be putting himself ahead of his country? Wouldn’t this be a case of egotism overcoming patriotism?
You see the dilemma – fight dirty, or risk losing. How sad that we have been forced to make this choice. How tragic that the party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy has descended to this level. And how scandalous that the heirs of great journalists like Edward R. Murrow are destroying whatever shreds of credibility the mainstream media still retain.
Will Biden’s Law of Debate take firm hold? Stay tuned.
Author’s Note: Contrary to what you might think, the photo accompanying this column was not taken at the second presidential debate. It does not depict Barack Obama (right) and Candy Crowley (left) attempting to silence Mitt Romney (center). The resemblance, though striking, is purely coincidental.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.