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?
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.