The Brooklyn Rail’s Player-of-the-Year, 2012

Volumes of horse race punditry notwithstanding, the 2012 presidential campaign seemed like anything but a day at the track. Instead it felt more like we were waiting at the 18th hole in a golf tournament that kept getting rain delayed. Indeed, the whole experience was about as dynamic as watching the Olympic “sport” of dressage, otherwise known as horse ballet.

To put it in perspective, keep in mind that among his many improbable feats four years ago, Barack Obama sank a three-pointer on the first try while visiting troops in Kuwait. On this year’s trail, other than a game of flag football with journalists, Mitt Romney’s only notable sporting endeavor was a game of “airplane bowling” with Marco Rubio.

Among other flaws, the lead characters in this year’s drama lacked arc. One was a really stiff, really rich guy whose main selling point was his experience heading up Bain Capital, a fittingly sinister name for a rapaciously evil enterprise. The other lead was the inspiring guy from 2008, who now wanted to run on his record and avoid making any big promises this time around. Both, you might say, lacked sizzle.

By midsummer, the campaign had all the excitement of protracted litigation. Yet, until August, there at least stood the possibility of a 2008 replay. It seemed unlikely, but Mitt still had time to make a really rash choice and pick a relative unknown from a really remote region, someone raw but eager—Eddie Calvo, Governor of Guam, would have made such a short list. If nothing else, a Palin-type would have breathed life into a snoozerific campaign.

Instead, Mitt looked inside the Beltway, and found someone seasoned and pseudo-smart. Perhaps not fit for the highest office, Paul Ryan is nonetheless just plain fit. Mitt’s choice may have kept the Koch brothers happy, but it brought little spice to the ticket. And should there be a sequel to Game Change, my guess is that it will be called Game Over

All of this leads to one conclusion: Thank God for Joe Biden. Quite honestly, that’s something I never thought I’d say. But rather than a greedy boss, an Ayn Rand worshipper, or a cautious technocrat, at least the loose-lipped guy injected a bit of humanity into the race. And while we’re on the subject of his mouth, let’s not forget the V.P.’s teeth—for they shone brightly this year as well. For these reasons, and many more, Joe Biden is the Rail’s 2012 Player-of-the-Year.

Three moments stand out in the year of the Biden.

In early May, on the eve of a North Carolina vote on whether to add an amendment to the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage, the V.P. appeared on Meet the Press. Whereas President Obama’s stated position was that his view on gay marriage was “evolving,” Biden told David Gregory in no uncertain terms that “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are all entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” More dramatically, though slightly more equivocally, Obama three days later told ABC’s Robin Roberts that “at a certain point I’ve just concluded that—for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that—I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” In retrospect, the “certain point” when POTUS reached his conclusion most likely happened while watching VPOTUS three days earlier. Biden thus stands as the first vice president in American history to accelerate the pace of evolution.

After the farcical fanfare surrounding Romney’s announcement of Ryan as his running mate in early August, the vice president soon commandeered the spotlight, proving that it had only been a matter of Biden time (sorry). As Joe told a largely black audience in Virginia, “In the first 100 days, [Romney]’s going to let the big banks again write their own rules—‘UNCHAIN Wall Street.’ They’re gonna put y’all back in chains.” It was an over-the-top metaphor, too extreme even for the Occupy rabble-rousers who had helped bring inequality into the national spotlight a year earlier. But to his credit, even as he qualified the statement and aligned it with the Democratic lexicon, the V.P. still deployed vivid imagery: “The last time these guys unshackled the economy, to use their term, they put the middle class in shackles,” Biden said. Such statements stoked rhetorical fires not seen in American politics since the run-up to the assault on Fort Sumter.

And then there was the showdown on Thursday evening, October 11, when Biden dueled Paul Ryan in the former slave state of Kentucky. A week earlier, Obama had given a surprisingly lackluster performance in his first debate with Romney—which Al Gore attributed to the altitude in Denver. Danville, Kentucky is nearly 1,000 feet above sea level, but for Paul Randian it felt like the Sahara Desert. Biden thoroughly roasted him over the coals, causing the challenger to repeatedly gulp down water. Fully aware that there are some words you cannot say on television, the V.P. termed his opponent’s statements “malarkey” two times in the opening 20 minutes. That’s not exactly a fighting word these days, but the true insult was that when Ryan spoke, Joe merely laughed. One month before Election Day, Biden’s march was already complete.

The V.P., you might say, put some teeth into the Democrats’ 2012 campaign. Big, shiny choppers, that is. They were on full display in the debate with Ryan, as well as everywhere Biden went on the campaign trail. Even when repeating his signature stump line—“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”—for the umpteenth time, he was ready to flash the pearly whites. (At press time, I was unable to confirm whether Biden’s perfect teeth are indeed real—although photos from his first run for the Senate in 1972 show that he’s had the same set at least since then.) Of course it would be a stretch to say that he won the race for the Democrats. But by helping, rather than hurting, the campaign, Biden has at least raised the bar for future V.P. contenders.

This year’s Player-of-the-Year award comes with a caveat, however. Given that he’s been around Washington for four decades, it’s not hard to find aspects of Biden’s record to call into question. Yet, in my mind what stands out most is neither his mistaken vote to authorize the Iraq War nor his dubious handling of the Clarence Thomas nomination. Rather, it’s his effort as author of Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—better known as either the Crime Bill or the Biden Law.

In the wake of the crack epidemic, gang violence, and the L.A. Riots, there was widespread popular support for a law-and-order crackdown during the early ’90s. And some elements of Biden’s bill were indeed reasonable, such as federal funding for 100,000 local police officers or the assault weapons ban (one of the last pieces of national gun control legislation). But at the same time, the Crime Bill lent federal sanction to a massive expansion of the prison system, and it vastly increased the number of death penalty-eligible offenses. The prison boom of the ’90s was fully supported by the Clinton administration, and Joe Biden played an instrumental role.

In the wake of the Crime Bill, the prison population of the U.S. began to increase exponentially, to the point where our 2.2 million prisoners presently make us the world leader (and the rate of incarceration is about seven times greater in the U.S. than in China). Rather than break down the racial and class disparities of our criminal justice system, let’s raise a simple question: What happens to all of those prisoners while they are locked up? The vast majority will leave prison, and so we all have a vested interest in knowing that they will be prepared to contribute to society upon release.

Alas, the programming repeatedly shown to have the greatest effect in reducing recidivism—college education—was drastically curtailed under the Crime Bill. Indeed, it was the words penned by Joe Biden that cut off Pell Grants to prisoners; as the 1994 act specified,No basic grant shall be awarded … to any individual who is incarcerated in any Federal or State penal institution.” As a result, prison college education programs suffered substantially—and so did the chances for the formerly incarcerated to live productive lives upon release.

Thus, the caveat for our Player-of-the-Year 2012. If in the coming year, the vice president takes an active lead in redressing some of the problems of our criminal justice system that he helped create, he can keep the 2012 award. If not, the honor will be withdrawn and it will be given retroactively to the biggest loser of 2012, Mitt Romney.

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Theodore Hamm