VP Debate Morning-After Reaction

By James Fallows

I said last week that the unimpressive Obama first-debate performance didn't seem any different on a night's reflection than it had while underway.

For me it's not the same with the VPs. My sense of the sheer political effect of the debate hasn't changed from the real-time impression. I don't think either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan moved many voters from one camp to the other, which is generally the pattern with VP debates. Ryan did enough to reassure his voters; Biden did the more urgently necessary and politically significant job of charging up depressed Democrats. Now it's up to Obama and Romney again.

But on the fine grain:

- For years I have been skeptical of whether Paul Ryan's depth on any issue mastered his braniac image in a mainly sympathetic press. I mostly agree with Conor Friedersdorf about the notable things Ryan said, or didn't say, or didn't know about foreign policy. Eg, as Friedersdorf puts it:

[For the current GOP] geopolitical events unfold according to a simple, predictable model. Do you believe that America is an exceptional nation, that this must be an American century, that Iran cannot get a bomb, and that Israel is our closest ally? If so, everything will work out. It is a testament to the malleability of language that we now call this ideology "conservative."

- As Charles Pierce argues, it is fair to compare Ryan's foreign-policy sophistication to Sarah Palin's. We can ask why she was mocked for her "I can see Russia" line and he has not been for comparably bald statements about Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia, or the practically unmentioned China.

- I agree with Michael Tomasky that the debate format could use another look. Martha Raddatz was overall very admirable, but her final question was Oprahesque: "If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?" That is fine for Oprah, but this was not the Oprah show (and is not the way Raddatz spent the first half of the debate). Both Ryan and Biden quickly figured out that the only appropriate response to this opening was standard "eager to serve" blather.

Another of her closing questions was about the the candidates' personal religious views, as two Catholics. In practice, Biden made the most of this opportunity, by reaffirming the bedrock founding-of-America principle that we must recognize the distinction between personal religious convictions and public-policy views. But I thought the question itself was based on a premise that both candidates should have challenged: that it was in any way appropriate to grill them during an election on matters of personal faith. I know, you can't please everybody -- but it was almost as if a previous Catholic candidate for national office had never addressed this issue. (See also Ed Kilgore on this point.) Here is Raddatz's question:

We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.

Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country...

RYAN: Sure.

RADDATZ: ... please talk personally about this, if you could.

Here is what another Catholic candidate said 52 years ago:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

I have received a bunch of mail from readers who say that they're still undecided -- but shouldn't be mocked in the way SNL so memorably did. Will get to that in a while.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/vp-debate-morning-after-reaction/263538/