The vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan easily was one of the most hyped in the history of vp debates, or at least that’s what we were told heading into it. Frankly, I remember the debate between Palin and Biden being bigger, but for a different reason. Biden may have a well deserved reputation for gaffes, but Palin walked into that debate with an albatross of ignorance and plain political inaccuracy. So everyone watching was hoping she would follow suit and deliver another piece of staggeringly incorrect nonsense, but in the end she had prepped well and kept herself from any huge mistakes. Back then, Biden also held back, not letting his well known aggression get out of control for fear it would look like he was beating a dead horse (no allusion intended).
This time Biden didn’t have to hold back since Ryan has shown time and again he is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with people, even while defending policies that are wildly unpopular. Ryan gained a reputation for straight talk or talking the hard truths, but as shown last night, the reputation comes less from actual facts and more from his ability to talk in a calm manner, be utterly convinced of his own truth and tumbling out numbers when in trouble.
Biden also suffers from a similar tendency to state his side of the argument as fact carved in stone, never to be altered or changed. It’s part of his overuse of the words “literally” and “period” and it can cause as much trouble as lying because facts have a nasty habit of changing once looked at through the cold lens of past perspective.
With all those things in mind, the two political warriors stepped to the stage last night and did what they had to do, at least on the surface. Ryan kept his cool when Biden appeared to go off the rails during the first half, yet Biden also pushed Ryan on a number of policy issues in the manner so many felt was missing from Obama’s performance the week before. Folks on each side had reasons to feel good when the debate was over and that allows both camps to claim they won, but I think as people look over what was really said during that debate, those few independent voters left might be a touch more wary of the Romney/Ryan ticket, due to a surprising admission on the question of abortion.
Late in the debate, moderator Martha Raddatz (who did a fantastic job in comparison to Jim Lehrer) posed a question to the candidates about how their faith affected their leadership choices, specifically in the realm of abortion and women’s rights. Ryan is one of the most intensely conservative people to approach the office of vice president and he made that perfectly clear in his response. It wasn’t a surprise that he is pro life (he maintains a 100 percent rating from the folks who grade pro life candidates), but it was a genuine shock to hear him say the case of Roe V. Wade should never have been heard by the Supreme Court to begin with. His idea is that the question of legality for abortion be taken away from the Supreme Court and tossed back to Congress where it can be voted on.
This is sheer insanity. Ryan cherry-picked a cause that he believes in and because the Supreme Court (which just happens to be one-third of the government as established by the Constitution) doesn’t agree with him, he figures we should just ignore them. It shows the lengths he is willing to take his anti-abortion crusade and should legitimately scare those people who worry about the rights of women under future Conservative control. Ryan also claimed that since his belief is that life begins at conception, there is no definition or cause of the pregnancy that should allow for abortion. He backpedaled by saying under a Romney administration there would be exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, but underneath it was perfectly clear (as it has been in past speeches) that Ryan himself believes in no exceptions under any circumstances.
Biden, who is also a devout Catholic, took immediate advantage of this in his response. He admitted he also believes life begins at conception because that is what his faith teaches him, but he understands that he has no right to push that belief on the rest of the country. He specifically mentioned we are a country of Christians, Jews, Muslims and many others, so applying one law with a faith-stated reason across the whole country is patently unfair.
At this point in the CNN instant polling, it was the highest moment for Biden in the entire debate and conversely the lowest for Ryan.
I expect this back and forth on abortion will become the big player for the Democrats moving forward. They’ve been trying to paint the Romney/Ryan ticket as extreme and in the first debate Romney did everything he could to swerve hard to the center in order to avoid that label, but now Ryan has yanked them back to the right, exactly where Obama and Biden want them.
This morning it seems the biggest attack from the right is that Biden was rude, dismissive and aggressive, especially in relation to his many facial expressions during Ryan’s answers. While they are somewhat correct about Biden’s attitude during the first half of the debate (he noticeably calmed down during the second half), if that is the worst they can come up with, Biden should walk away with his head high.
It wasn’t a knockout blow for either candidate, but Biden certainly re-energized the base and likely stemmed the bleeding from Obama’s poor first performance. Ryan didn’t really do much to sway the mysterious middle to his side, instead just shored up his more conservative followers. The net effect of both debaters will likely give a small edge to the Obama camp, which might be just what they needed going into the second debate on Tuesday. I would expect Obama to bring some of Biden’s fire to the floor, while Romney will get a good opportunity to show he can withstand a president who’s on his game.