If Joe Biden and Paul Ryan play to their strengths in tonight’s debate, it will be a clash between head and heart.
And that may make this one of the most important vice-presidential debates in modern political history -- because the election itself will hinge on which of those two supremely human faculties the voters favor on Nov. 6.
Not to paint this as a matter of black and white because the details come in every shade of gray, but broadly speaking the tension between “head” and “heart” defines the difference between conservatism and liberalism, captured in the famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”
The conservative “head” tends to see the world in a dispassionate, cautious way -- strongly favoring the individual over the group, and wary of grand attempts to improve the human condition.
The liberal “heart” is more compassionate and emotional -- concerned more with “we” than “I”, and firmly convinced that we can erase poverty, injustice and inequality if only the plan is big enough and bold enough.
Thus, George W. Bush attempted to style himself a “compassionate conservative” -- because he worried that Republican conservatism had become too cold and hard. He may have been a compassionate man, but the party surrounded him with handlers who wanted none of that softheaded stuff.
Thus, the poignancy of Teddy Kennedy’s address to the 1980 Democratic convention, which rallied the party to the traditional liberal values and ended with the words: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Causes, hopes and dreams are good -- but reality demands attention and often doesn’t yield to yearning no matter how heartfelt, as Jimmy Carter found out a few months later.
Of course, most Americans would prefer a middle ground, but that has disappeared from political rhetoric and practice. “Moderate” is not on any ballot.
Given the politics of our time, we could not have two better representatives of this philosophical difference than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Obama distilled the essence of liberalism into three words in his 2008 campaign: “Yes we can.”
Romney was by far the most promising Republican challenger in 2008 -- and Democrats were greatly relieved when John McCain got the nod. Romney was certain to be the most dangerous opponent this year, but could win the nomination only by selling his soul to the party’s hardest-headed, hardest-hearted constituents.
If the two of them had slugged it out to the best of their abilities, it would have been a pretty fair fight. The early polls, which had Obama in the lead, suggested that if Americans had to choose between more head or more heart, they’d take the heart.
Then came the flaming disaster (for Democrats) that was the presidential debate.
Romney fully embodied the conservative ideal -- a facts-and-numbers barrage rooted in the rhetoric of business management. He paralleled Bush’s strategy by occasionally reaching for compassion (and generally tacking toward the center), but they were hollow gestures (betrayed by a truly ghastly mechanical “smile”).
Obama’s great failure was not that he didn’t match Romney number-for-number, fight spreadsheet with spreadsheet, but that he utterly failed to communicate the liberal vision -- the cause, the hope, the dream. As miserable as his performance was, he might have redeemed it in his closing statement. Instead ... well, I agree with Andrew Sullivan, who called it “sad, confused and lame.”
So now the polls are running heavily toward Romney. That makes sense -- only one side showed up to debate and people have lost sight of what they are choosing between.
Which brings us to tonight’s debate.
Joe Biden has an opportunity to do what his boss inexplicably failed to do -- articulate the heart-centered vision that got him and the president elected in the first place, and which has achieved much more good than Romney argued or Obama explained.
And he’s the guy for the job. Biden may be “gaffe” prone, but rarely in debates, and he is all about emotion and passion -- the scrappy kid from Scranton, smart but not as polished as some of his Washington colleagues. In his best moment in his 2008 debate against Sara Palin, Biden choked up talking about caring for his two young sons as a single father after his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. He knows how to speak from the heart, and to touch hearts.
His opponent, Congressman Paul Ryan is, like Romney, a numbers whiz who is, as Dick Morris opined in a column for Fox News, “the author and intellectual founder of the modern Republican agenda.”
It will be the hard head against the open heart.
The polls show the presidential race a virtual tie. It could go either way, and the president himself will have two more debate opportunities to make his case.
Still, the first debate was a huge setback for Obama, and a lot of Democrats lost heart because of it.
It’s up to Joe Biden to help them find it again.