Debate Etiquette?

10.13.12

The Car Crash Paul Ryan Should Have Avoided at the VP Debate

What could have possessed the Romney campaign to allow its No. 2 to recite a canned story about an auto accident—in a debate with a man who lost his wife and daughter to such a tragedy? Michael Daly on a moment even Palin could have avoided.

Not even Sarah Palin at her nuttiest would have told a car crash story involving hurt kids while debating a man who lost his wife and young daughter in just such a tragedy.

But Paul Ryan did.

And he veered out of his way to do it.

It came right after Vice President Biden noted that Mitt Romney had been against rescuing the auto industry, not to mention distressed homeowners. Biden added, “It shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives.”

Ryan’s first words in response seemed to be the start of a defense or at least a rationalization of Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout.

“[Biden] talks about Detroit. Mitt Romney’s a car guy,” Ryan said. “They keep misquoting him, but let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know.”

Ryan then jumped from the car industry to a car accident as casually as if the common denominator “car” gave it some kind of sense.

“I was talking to a family in Northborough, Mass., the other day, Sheryl and Mark Nixon,” Ryan said. “Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them. Two of them, Rob and Reed, were paralyzed.”

The story that followed was clearly a canned one that Ryan had come to the debate intending to get in somewhere, no matter how nonsensical the segue. It seems neither he nor anybody else in the Romney-Ryan campaign stopped to think that it might be inappropriate, considering Biden’s tragedy in 1972.

Ryan went on: “The Romneys didn’t know them. They went to the same church; they never met before. Mitt asked if he could come over on Christmas. He brought his boys, his wife, and gifts. Later on, he said, ‘I know you’re struggling, Mark. Don’t worry about their college. I’ll pay for it.’”

Ryan added a final flourish to his tale of golden-hearted Romney.

“When Mark told me this story, because, you know what, Mitt Romney doesn’t tell these stories. The Nixons told this story. When he told me this story, he said it wasn’t the help, the cash help. It’s that he gave his time, and he has consistently.”

Biden had responded with grace so uncommon it could only be innate, suggesting that his usual bombast may be at least partly a cover for the hurt that he must still keenly feel four decades later.

Ryan made it sound as if he had encountered the family and Mark Nixon had felt compelled to tell him about his running mate’s nobility because Romney was too modest to tell it. The true story behind the story is that the Nixons were on the Glenn Beck show in September. A campaign aide then telephoned the Nixons and asked if they would take a call from Ryan. The Nixons agreed and told Ryan the story he now brought to the debate as a prepared response to the 47 percent issue, which Biden was sure to raise after President Obama had so famously failed to do so.

The story told, Ryan threw out some percentages aimed at nullifying the dread 47.

“This is a man who gave 30 percent of his income to charity, more than the two of us combined,” he said. “Mitt Romney’s a good man. He cares about 100 percent of Americans in this country.”

Ryan then pulled a u-ey back to where he started or, at least, so it seemed.

“And with respect to that quote, I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way.”

It was not entirely clear which quote Ryan was talking about. He had just said Romney had been misquoted about the auto bailout. But the context suggests that Ryan was talking about the 47 percent remark, though that was not a quote. It was a videotape.

Either way, Ryan capped it all off with a joke, which might even have been funny had he not just been talking about a car wreck and hurt kids with Biden sitting right there.

Biden answered the joke in its own terms, making it no laughing matter.

“But I always say what I mean,” Biden said. “And so does Romney.”

Ryan hurried in to obfuscate further what Romney said.

“We want everybody to succeed,” Ryan said. “We want to get people out of poverty, in the middle class, onto a life of self-sufficiency. We believe in opportunity and upward mobility. That’s what we’re going to push for in a Romney administration.”

The moderator, Martha Raddatz, said she had the feeling Biden had some things to say. Biden began with a message for anybody who believes that Romney had “just made a mistake” when he made “that little soliloquy.”

“I’ve got a bridge to sell you,” Biden said.

Biden then said of Romney, “Look, I don’t doubt his personal generosity. And I understand what it’s like…”

Biden quietly did a reverse segue from Romney’s big-heartedness to a car wreck, only not the one involving the Nixons.

“When I was a little younger than the congressman, my wife was in an accident, killed my daughter and my wife, and my two sons survived,” Biden said. “I have sat in the homes of many people who’ve gone through what I got through, because the one thing you can give people solace is to know if they know you’ve been through it, that they can make it.”

Biden had responded with grace so uncommon it could only be innate, suggesting that his usual bombast may be at least partly a cover for the hurt that he must still keenly feel four decades later, that had now become so clear in his voice for just a moment.

The hurt receded below the surface but imparted an added passion as Biden returned to the question of Romney and his record.

“So I don’t doubt his personal commitment to individuals,” Biden said. “But you know what? I know he had no commitment to the automobile industry. He just—he said, ‘Let it go bankrupt, period.’”

The deeply personal seemed to surge again in Biden, mixing with the political. He spoke as a man who had learned after losing a child and wife how little mere words can mean.

“Stop talking about how you care about people,” he said. “Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility.”

Ryan just stayed on a script that even Palin would not have followed. His adherence to the prepared cost him a chance to score big at the end, when Biden closed by saying, “The president and I are not going to rest” until middle-class Americans “can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK.’”

“That’s what this is all about,” Biden said.

Ryan could have responded by saying Obama and Biden have been in office for four years, and precious few Americans are able to say tell their kids it’s going to be OK.

Ryan instead gazed with blank intensity into the camera and recited a closing speech as canned as his effort to show Romney’s caring side with a car crash story told in front of this opponent who had suffered such a loss.

The script complete, the debate done, Ryan was joined on the stage by his wife and kids.