Paul Kengor, Ph.D, is a professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include God and Hillary Clinton and, most recently, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.
Last night, two Catholic candidates for vice president squared off in a nationally televised debate.
On our right, we observed a young pro-life Catholic provide measured, intelligent, thoughtful statements and answers to questions.
On our left, we watched a “pro-choice Catholic” deliver smirks, scoffs and laughs that fully overshadowed and undermined whatever substance was contained in his statements and answers.
The fellow on the right was smart, sincere and likable. The older man on the left was rude, obnoxious and unlikable.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a debate where one candidate was as openly disrespectful … and openly contemptuous,” observed an amazed Chris Wallace, the veteran reporter, who said he has watched every presidential and vice-presidential debate since Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960.
Needless to say, the calm “adult” was Rep. Paul Ryan. The petulant scoffer was Vice President Joe Biden.
They say that style matters in a debate. Of course, it does. And in a presidential race where the Obama-Biden ticket desperately needs to regain independent/moderate voters, Biden ably repelled them last night.
I’m certain that women, in particular — who the Obama-Biden ticket is desperately wooing to recoup — were repulsed by Biden’s demeanor. Fox News Channel’s Frank Luntz watched the debate with a focus group of crucial Ohio voters, most of whom voted for Obama in 2008. He asked what they thought of Biden’s demeanor. Immediately, three hands went up — all of them women, and all of them were disgusted. Three for three — a perfect trifecta for the veep.
In short, whatever Joe Biden gained in this debate on substance was dispatched in style. He lost the overall debate because of his uncontrollable condescension.
But what about the substance? And what about issues of interest to Catholics?
The candidates started with foreign policy, which is Biden’s area of expertise. That was a tough place for Paul Ryan to begin, but the Wisconsin congressman was notably strong, especially as the discussion addressed the administration’s shifting explanation for the Libya fiasco.
The Obama administration looks terrible on this rapidly unfolding scandal, and Biden did nothing to improve the image. To the contrary, Biden blamed the failures on the intelligence community. As he did, he steadily made major news.
Everything he said about Libya last night will be contested today on talk shows and — worse — on Capitol Hill.
When it came to domestic matters, Ryan’s command of hard numbers on unemployment, GDP growth (actually, the lack thereof), the deficit, the debt and more was superb. Biden counterattacked with heavy class-warfare rhetoric, even more extreme than what Barack Obama had fired against Mitt Romney.
How many times did Joe Biden use words like “super-wealthy” or “super-rich?”
Paul Ryan’s best dig on the Obama economy might have come when he asked Joe Biden if he knew the unemployment rate in his hometown of Scranton, Pa. Biden nodded. Ryan noted that it’s in the double digits — 10%. Of course, the real number of unemployment in Scranton (and for America as a whole) is even higher still.
Debate watchers would not have known something else that Biden is well aware of in Scranton: He can’t receive the Eucharist there. Biden has been so denied because of his inexcusable positions advocating abortion.
To that end, debate moderator Martha Raddatz asked both Catholic men about their positions on abortion and how faith affects their lives. Their answers were telling — and not surprising.
Paul Ryan went first, appealing to both faith and reason — fides et ratio.
“I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life. Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.”
In regard to that science, Ryan then talked about his wife’s first ultrasound:
“You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife, Janna, and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville, where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, ‘Bean.’ Now, I believe that life begins at conception.”
Not missing a beat, Ryan quickly went from his personal feelings to the Obama administration’s actions with its Health and Human Services’ mandate. Reportedly, Biden privately warned Obama that the controversial federal law would put the administration on a collision course with the Catholic Church.
“What troubles me more is how this administration has handled all of these issues. Look at what they’re doing through Obamacare with respect to assaulting the religious liberties of this country. They’re infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals. Our Church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious liberties. And with respect to abortion, the Democratic Party used to say they wanted it to be ‘safe, legal and rare.’ Now they support it without restriction and with taxpayer funding: taxpayer funding in Obamacare, taxpayer funding with foreign aid. The vice president himself went to China and said that he sympathized and wouldn’t second-guess their one-child policy of forced abortions and sterilizations. That, to me, is pretty extreme.”
As Ryan said this, Biden smirked and laughed and rolled his eyes, even during Ryan’s fully accurate statement about Biden in China.
And then it was Biden’s turn to address the abortion question:
“My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And [it] has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to — with regard to abortion — I accept my Church’s position on abortion. … Life begins at conception in the Church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women — they — can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. …
“With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear: No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception; none has to pay for contraception; none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”
A quick but unclear exchange followed regarding the HHS mandate, with Biden attempting to defend the Obama administration against the Church and the bishops, prompting Ryan to ask the vice president a revealing rhetorical question: “Then why would they keep suing you?” (The bishops have responded regarding the inaccuracy of Biden's comments.)
Biden then attempted to claim that the Obama administration had no litmus test requiring Supreme Court candidates to support abortion. Said Biden: “There was no litmus test. We picked people who had an open mind, did not come with an agenda.”
The words “people who had an open mind” are code words for people who support unlimited, taxpayer-funded abortion.
This exchange on abortion, life and faith was a crucial, clarifying moment for voters. Kudos to Raddatz for daring to ask the question — even if she did cut off Ryan’s attempt to dismantle the veep’s inaccurate statements on the mandate.
Here, and throughout the debate, voters — Catholics among them — were left with a clear choice for November 2012.
And Joe Biden and Paul Ryan also made it clear which ticket supports the Catholic Church’s position on life and liberty.