What Did We Learn from the Vice Presidential Debate?

Vice-presidential debates rarely move the race at the top of the ticket in any significant way. When the dust settles after last night’s debate I suspect this will be the case. I thought both participants did an excellent job of articulating their position. I was not put off by Biden’s reactions to Ryan. I was a bit annoyed by Paul Ryan’s “I’m the smartest kid in the class” routine, but I admit a bias in this case. Polls show that both men turned in respectable performances.

Who won? CNN has Ryan winning 48/44, which has to be off. CBS has Biden winning 50/31. More polls than not this morning seem to give the advantage to the vice-president but I’m convinced that opinions about winners and losers, this time, merely tell us which side of this election you are on to begin with.

So what did we learn?

Nothing really.

Both men successfully argued their own approach. Biden probably won on sophistry, but Ryan held his own while sitting at the grown-up’s table. Biden did a better job of pointing out the malarkey but it won’t matter to those who were put off by his aggressive approach. Overall, Biden won on likability. I disagree with Biden on so many political issues, but I never dislike him. He has just enough back-slapping good-ole-boy to his personality that whether or not you like his politics, you usually like Joe Biden. Ryan is different. He can be shrill. Ryan’s that short white point guard who plays on many a college basketball team. He’s made it this far more on guts and relentless effort than on pure talent and he’ll probably never play at the next level. If he’s on your team you love him, but every other team hates him, and this includes moderates. You can’t strike a populist pose if you gave yourself and your com padres the nickname “The Young Guns.”

As a Christian I have a bone to pick with Ryan’s last answer on abortion. Biden threaded the needle for his constituency, saying he’s personally pro-life but refuses to impost that view on others. So did Ryan, but what Ryan failed to do, and Biden failed to force him to do, is to answer for the fact that his care for the vulnerable doesn’t extend beyond the unborn… and it should. Ryan’s budget proposal represents his inner core, and it is completely out of step with basic Christian principles concerning the poor and vulnerable. In the end this vice-presidential nominee may cost Romney, as many undecideds would be much more likely to vote for Romney if Paul Ryan wasn’t standing next to him. I know I would.

One interesting note is that Biden kept pressing Ryan on Ryan’s own record, and on Romney’s ever-changing inner core. This is where Obama failed in the first debate with Romney, and not for nothing, Obama failed in large part because Romney played a beautiful bait and switch. The best I’ve ever seen. It’s much tougher for an incumbent to tie a challenger to that challenger’s record – even more so with Romney who has undergone a total political makeover since his days as a moderate governor.

I think the only real takeaway from this debate is that Romney will probably have a more difficult time in the next two presidential debates. In the first debate Romney moved his message to the center – enough to alarm some conservatives – and came off like a moderate populist. Ryan didn’t do that last night. Ryan sounded like a true conservative. It could be that Ryan has painted Romney into a corner much in the same way Sara Palin did for John McCain. Obama’s approach will be more aggressive and it shouldn’t be that hard to force Romney to double down on the issues on which Obama feels he can win.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • Charlie

    I guess I am baffled by the “don’t want to impose my beliefs” argument . If I a politician said they were against murder or slavery personally, but would not want to impose their personal values on others, does that argument work?

    • Tim Suttle

      Charlie, I think many Christians are equally baffled. Here’s how I see it:

      Biden says, “I believe abortion is morally wrong, but I refuse to impose my belief on other people who do not share that belief.” The pro-life folks say, “That’s like saying, ‘I believe murder or slavery is wrong but I refuse to impose my belief on other people.’” The pro-life folks are making a faulty analogy based on different assumptions.

      Biden recognizes that some people do not believe life begins at conception, they believe life begins at breath or at some later stage of embryological development, and thus abortion is not murder. I’m not endorsing that belief, I’m just saying that is a different assumption, a different starting point. And, not for nothing, but the scriptures talk much more about life as connected to breath than conception… Life begins when God breathes the breath of life into our nostrils. Again, I’m not saying that I think that is right, but it should be noted that there is some solid theological warrant for saying life begins at breath.

      So, when Biden, or others, say “we refuse to impose our beliefs,” they are saying that some people have different convictions about when life begins, what is involved in full human agency, how that works out in this issue. To respond with “That’s like saying I believe in murder but refuse to impose my beliefs on other people,” makes the assumption that life begins at conception. Somewhere around 1/2 of the U.S. population does not begin with that same assumption.

      • Charlie

        ok, so when political leaders kept slavery legal in the United States during our first 90 years of existence, they had moral ground to do so because half of the population had different moral convictions about the ethical grounds surrounding slavery? They could point to “slaves obey your earthly masters’ and call it good? I think you make excellent points about the lack of specifics for Romney-Ryan tax plans, and his support for companies getting stimulus money sure opens a huge hole in his deficit argument. I just see a similar gap on this issue with Obama-Biden.

        • Tim Suttle

          No, it doesn’t mean that at all. It just means that it’s a bad analogy – a logical fallacy – based upon completely different assumptions. It is baffling to us if we are not constantly aware of our own assumptions and that others have differing assumptions. That being said, let’s get to work on shaping people’s assumptions about all of life. That’s where this issue can move forward.

          • Charlie

            I disagree. I see the “I don’t want to impose my beliefs” argument as a complete cop out. These leaders are elected to lead, govern, pass laws and impose their beliefs – that’s why Biden pointed out proudly that he has been an advocate for the middle class for his career. I believe my analogy does track. You described a possible pro choice argument far more clearly than Obama-Biden, so I’m voting for you as a write-in.

    • John R Huff Jr

      I am baffled at just how you want to argue with Tim. You will never learn a thing this way.

  • Scott Stone

    Plethora of points to make but one quick question. You’ve made this point multiple times, which I think is an incorrect assessment on your part, that Ryan is out of step with fundamental Christiian principles regarding the poor. Would you say that the president is out of step with the fundamental Christian principle of good stewardship?

  • Frank

    They both made good points but you know what people are going to remember most? The creepy, condesending smile and laughter of a 69 year old which made him look like a child. Whîle Dems may be happy with Bidens performance, the voters that matter mostly were turned off.

    All in all the debate changed nothing.

  • Tim Suttle

    Yes I would. He’s out of step on stewardship and he is also out of step as he bombs the crap out of unsuspecting non-combatants with drone attacks. I stick by my assessment on Ryan, though. Even the leaders of his own church have attacked his budget plan.

    • John R Huff Jr

      And rightly so. Ryan is a upstart who thinks he knows something and what he thinks he knows is not worth
      the time of day. The most over rated person . He is an overall light weight.

  • scott stone

    You know my position regarding Paul Ryan and I don’t want to relitigate the issue, though I do think you are misguided in your assessment. When his church leaders start standing up and making an issue of how we haven’t had a budget in 4 years and how we are saddling future generations with tremendous debt, then I’ll take them seriously. They, and maybe you, make more out of a budgetary outline (the Ryan plan) that isn’t law than they do out of the lack of prioritization and reckless stewardship from the current administration.

    I think both candidate did what they needed to do and I too think that it won’t make much of a difference except maybe with some of the independents and undecided.
    I, unlike you, was bothered by Biden. I thought he was childish and arrogant. I try and personalize these situations and think about how I would feel if I had a friend or an acquaintance that sneered and laughed and chuckled each time I was trying to make a point.
    We all (assumption here) have friends or know people like this. They are usually quite narcissistic. It’s not a good character trait. I found his behavior to be beneath the office he holds. I’m not a violent guy but if I had a friend doing that to me all night long I’d want to punch him in the mouth. Biden is that arrogant cocky guy in high school that keeps needling someone bigger and more patient than he until he gets the crap kicked out him and then wonders why.
    And if I were Ryan I’d have pushed one simple issue when Biden kept saying their numbers don’t add up. Here is simple math that everyone can understand. At the heart of the Obama economic plan is eliminating the Bush tax cuts, which I am in favor of. He and Biden talk about this one economic metric more than any other one. FY 2012 just ended. $1.1T deficit. Using the presidents numbers and repealing the Bush tax cuts (actually they are the Obama tax cuts, he extended them so he owns them) the deficit would have been $1.02T.
    That’s a hell of a plan.
    David Brooks , a moderate/conservative but a straight shooter, summed it up well. I’m paraphrasing here: Most of the night was spent talking about the Romney plan from both men, that’s because they are the only ones that at least have a plan.

    • Ben

      “I try and personalize these situations and think about how I would feel if I had a friend or an acquaintance that sneered and laughed and chuckled each time I was trying to make a point.”

      Isn’t that what they both did? Biden’s was just more overt and straight forward. Ryans’s was much more condecending to me.

    • Alan Conwell

      Very well said Mr. Stone. I don’t see how anyone can think the Obama Administration will be good for our country for another 4 years. They have no interest in making this country more energy independent, thus hurting poor people the most with high gas prices, high heating costs and so on. Green energy is OK, but it’s not here yet. Obama said he would bankrupt anyone wanting to open a coal mine. Oil exploration is up in the U.S. despite Obama policies. We are still a nation based on fossil fuels.
      Obama campaigned last time on being a uniter, but as soon as he got in office, he told the R’s, they can come along for the ride, but they have to go to the back of the bus. Everything he has done in office shows he has no interest in working Republican.
      Obama has shown no interest in getting spending under control. Every budget he has submitted gets no support, not even from his own party. This country is going to go over a financial cliff if we don’t get the spending under control.
      Finally, the Obama Administration went out on every network they could get on for 2 weeks telling everyone the murders of our Ambassador in Libia was the result of a YouTube video. They knew this was not true, but kept trying to push this narrative through their pals in the mainstream media, hoping it would go away. How can the American people have any faith in this Administration?

      • John R Huff Jr

        And , I have no faith in your analysis of something you know absolutely nothing about.

      • Joe

        That’s a bunch of malarkey Alan!

    • John R Huff Jr

      You don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

  • Scott Stone

    Isn’t it refreshing that many of the wedge issues of previous elections seem to be secondary issues this election cycle.

  • http://juliekinnear.com Julie K.

    It’s interesting to see how the vice presidential debate has provoked another debate among the voters, media men and women and political observers. Almost more exiting than the last week presidential debate. However, it seems that many Romney/Ryan supporters are paying more attention to the laughter, gestures and non-verbal communication of the Vice President rather than to his political arguments.

  • David Owens

    You were not put off by Biden’s boorish buffoonery? What does that say about you? You have zero credibility to make any political statement other than you love leftism and born liars. You are pathetic.

  • jerry lynch

    I live in a very conservative town and if forced to poltically label myself I would say a moderate or independent, most Christians I meet here see me not quite as a minon of Satan, in training, perhaps, like in the Srewtape Letters. I have been here five years and have yet to find another moderate or, God forbid, a democrat, but then again I don’t go looking, so my limited experience tells me the Christian Right, in general, does not act very Christlike. The outright hatred for Obama is palbable. And unless I agree America is the New Jerusalem, the Constitution is God inspired, Capitalism is God’s economy, Socialism is of the devil, and other nonsense, my faith is highly questionable.
    It gets worse when asked about political involvment, which I don’t see in keeping with Scripture (and that extends to putting the flag on altars and beyond). There is not enough space to give sound biblical reasons for my position, yet from top to bottom in this thread this possibility is given no mention. Maybe if we took time to openmindedly explore that possibility in the Bible, we may walk away with a little more gentleness and kindness over where we see things differently.

    • Joe

      Jerry, welcome to the “low information voter”. They love red states, home schooling, big boxy churches, huge gas guzzling cars (or beater cars for the LIV’s in poverty which many are) and they don’t like socialized medicine, except when they need to use it, which is a lot.

    • Tim Suttle

      Hey Jerry, I just wanted to say thanks for your comment. I can certainly sympathize with you. I want to encourage you to continue to seek first the Kingdom of God. If you do this authentically, I think that you will find that you will become even more an enemy of the political right on some issues, and you will become a real enemy of the left on other issues. My experience is that the rhetoric from the right is more vitriolic and hateful, which I lament, but it’s not any less significant than what you’ll hear from the left. The day that happens is the day you know that you are truly a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

      The flag on the altar is a powerful symbolic move – whichever way a church takes it – and I think you are right to resist it. We can never forget that when we are voting for a president, we are voting for a new Pharaoh.

  • John R Huff Jr

    Tim,
    I agree with your 100 % in your analysis. But, I am concerned about your many disagreements on policy with Biden. Just what specifically are you referring to?


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