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Near the top of my list of worst political cliches of the past several years (right behind the execrable “teachable moment”) is “an adult conversation.” Barack Obama called for one on the budget, then turned around and started calling people “Social Darwinists.” John Boehner said he was ready for one with the president, then insulted him in the next breath.
Calling for an adult conversation in politics has become the equivalent of telling someone to act more mature in the midst of an argument — the implicit condescension ensures both that your antagonist won’t comply and that your heart’s not really in it either.
This is what’s so interesting about Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. Here’s the rare politician who actually has adult conversations instead of just using the concept as a cudgel against the opposition. For proof, you need look no further than the increasingly famous video (embedded below) of Ryan schooling President Obama on health care at the Blair House summit in early 2010.
What’s notable about this clip isn’t Ryan’s undisputed mastery of the subject matter (it’s deservedly high praise to say that we’ve come to expect that from him); it’s the style of his delivery. This is not the sort of fist-swelling beat down we’d be circulating to celebrate the addition of a Chris Christie or Newt Gingrich to the ticket. At its most raucous, it plays like an accountant who had half a glass of Sutter Home over (a sensibly-priced) lunch.
Indeed, what’s most striking is that Ryan displays exactly the traits that Barack Obama’s candidacy was sold on, yet that the president has never managed to harness: he’s unfailingly civil to the opposition, looking for every opportunity to accentuate shared goals; his policy outlook is relentlessly empirical; and — even in the face of something we know he perceives as catastrophic — he chooses a tone of can-do optimism rather than walleyed despair.
We’re about to have that adult conversation at long last. The question now is whether the electorate can really stomach the high-minded dialogue for which they’ve ostensibly been clamoring.
A week ago, I would’ve told you that this election would be a referendum on Barack Obama’s first term as president. Today, I’m more inclined to think that it will be the definitive statement on whether the American people prefer the exertions required to restore American vitality over the ephemeral comforts of gilded decline.