Joe Biden may have a reputation for being the crazy old Irish uncle who loves to tell stories that are sometimes embarrassing, but he’s also a great debater. Now, it’s not like Joe didn’t have his moments Thursday night–he leaned mighty heavily on “you’re shittin’ me” looks–but compared to his boss in the last debate, Biden is willing to challenge his opponent, knows how to make points crisply and can draw a sharp distinction between the two parties.
By contrast, Paul Ryan came across as somewhat callow and not always well informed, particularly on foreign policy. (The plan for using U.S. troops in the Middle East: when it’s in “the national interest.” Really?) Ryan also took some hits for bobbing and weaving when moderator Martha Raddatz tried to pin him down on specifics. This was especially noticeable on the question on whether abortion policy would change. Ryan weaseled his answer, but Biden was gracious enough to point out the kind of Supreme Court justices who would be appointed in a Romney administration.
Who won? Probably Biden, not just for substance. His goal was to get the Democratic base revved up again after Obama’s lackluster performance last week led to a general Democratic freak-out. That he did. Ryan’s goal was to prove he was smarter than Biden’s last debate partner, Sarah Palin, and to make people wonder if he’s secretly auditioning for a revival of Saved by the Bell. What was most remarkable about the debate was that it was so substantive.
Besides delineating differences in policy, there was also a telling moment when the two candidates, both Catholic, spoke about their faith in a way that encapsulated the generational rightward shift of the Church over the years. Ryan follows the strain, now dominant in the hierarchy, that puts abortion (as well as traditional marriage) at the pinnacle of belief. Biden is a Vatican II kind of guy, who said that his faith taught him to believe in “taking care of those who — who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help.”
You’ll never get a starker contrast between the two types of Catholicism than in that exchange, or of the difference between the bishops and the people in the pews.
And, of course, the values they would bring to the next administration.