I didn’t watch last night’s Democratic debate–I somehow managed to fall ill without doing so–but I was struck by this passage from what was supposed to be a news story about it. They’re talking about Biden’s performance at the debate:
The former vice president demonstrated more vigor than at many of the previous debates, when he often seemed somnolent. He sprinkled local references into his comments, sought to interject even when he was not called on and complained when he felt he was not given enough time.
In other words, “vigor”=boundary-crossings. A person of “vigor” carries on a conversation by interrupting people, and whining about the rules when compliance with them goes badly for him (or when he’d like to pretend that they did). By this standard, “somnolence” would have to consist in listening to people and complying with rules that one has agreed to uphold. Except that “somnolence” actually denotes a strong desire for sleep. If “vigor” so understood is a qualification for the presidency, I guess we’d have to admit that Donald Trump is the most “vigorous” and best qualified candidate out there: a man with a limitless desire to cross boundaries for its own sake, and the limitless energy to pull it off.
Maybe Biden would have done better for himself by prowling behind each of the other candidates as Trump did with Hillary Clinton in 2016, then sneaking up behind them, groping some of them and challenging the others to push-up contests (“Let Biden be Biden”!). At this point, I wouldn’t put it past any of the candidates to give that tactic a shot–or past the audience to applaud, or past someone on MSNBC or The View to describe the result as an example of presidential sprightliness.
Could there be a less dignified way of electing someone to office? I don’t often invoke my father as a source of policy recommendations, but he had one the other day that deserves notice. If a presidential campaign is supposed to be an extended “job interview,” he said, why not pick a group of experts in various fields to interview each serious candidate in turn, asking them the same questions, filming the proceedings, and broadcasting them? Wouldn’t that beat the childishness of demanding performance under pressure, and incentivizing the usual pandering to the peanut gallery? Maybe there are objections to that particular proposal, but it’s hard to think of anything sillier than a presidential debate that more closely resembles a badly-run sixth grade classroom than an oral exam for the highest office in the land. For now, alas, the first is our substitute for the second.