The vice presidential debate last night took an unexpected turn toward traffic safety, amid a lot of predictable chest-thumping about saving Detroit. After Vice President Joe Biden said what is by now a standard favorite in the administration repertoire — “Romney said, let Detroit go bankrupt” — Rep. Paul Ryan countered with this: “Mitt Romney’s a car guy.”
So now we’re running for president based on our penchant for power steering? Ryan didn’t say much more about Romney’s rich history with the car industry, like Romney’s dad running American Motors in the 50s. Instead, Ryan pivoted to talk about Romney’s personal generosity, through the lens of a horrific automobile accident:
They keep misquoting him, but let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know. This is a guy who — I was talking to a family in Northborough, Massachusetts the other day, Cheryl and Mark Nixon. Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them — two of them, Rob and Reid, were paralyzed. 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.
That struck me as a weird anecdote to mention in this race, primarily because, more than Romney’s generosity, it highlights his extreme wealth. Anyone else would have brought these people a fruitcake on Christmas; he brought them a couple of college tuitions.
The anecdote also highlights the ugly side of the car industry the candidates are competing to love best. And of course, Ryan walked right into Biden’s most compelling and heartrending personal story:
I understand what it’s like. 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. 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 is solace to know that if you’ve been through it, they can make it.
And then he pivoted back to saving jobs in Detroit.
When people are injured or killed in car crashes, it somehow never casts a pall over driving or U.S. car culture or the way our cities and towns are designed. Get hurt on a bike and your loved ones will line up to beg you never to ride again, but get hurt driving and no one will ever consider that you could break up with your car.