10/15/2012 04:53 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

The Importance of Beating Earnest: Lessons From the Vice Presidential Debate

From the Democratic perspective, the vice presidential debate was completely different in tone and style from the first presidential debate. Where the president was passive in his debate, the vice president was aggressive in his -- some people thought too much so. We think not because he got the job done. He accomplished his mission.

In the debate, Congressman Ryan was sincere and earnest. Vice President Biden was bemused, bothered but not bewildered. He knew he had to win the fight in the debate ring. He had to beat earnest.

And, he did -- not by a knock-out or even a technical knock-out. But, he clearly won on points -- points made during the debate itself against his opponent and in many of the subsequent polls.

Congressman Ryan was studious and serious throughout the debate and demonstrated his basic competence but little to no passion. Vice President Biden displayed considerable passion and compassion as well as his mastery of facts, figures and the fault lines that exist in the political process and head butting game.

This debate was a sharp study in contrasts - in terms of policy, politics and personal beliefs. It was easy to distinguish where each debater stood and what and whom they were standing for. On issues running the gamut from Libya to Medicare and the middle class, each debater spoke his mind and didn't back down. This gave the viewers a chance to make clear comparisons and each deserves commendations for that.

From our perspective, two of the more insightful debate moments came near the end. The first was when moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden, the Catholic boy from Scranton, Pa., and Paul Ryan, the Catholic boy from Janesville, Wis. to elaborate on "what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion." The second was in the debaters' closing comments.

On the issue of abortion, Congressman Ryan responded first and opened by stating, "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." He went on to say, "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."

Vice President Biden opened his comments on the issue by stating:

"My religion defines who I am, and I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life and has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who -- 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 as a -- what we call a (inaudible) doctrine. 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... "

These two statements brought each candidate's perspective to the fore. Vice President Ryan and Congressman Ryan both agreed that their Catholic faith had a substantial influence on them. Where Congressman Ryan stressed the lack of separation between church and state, the vice president stressed the need for separation. Where Congressman Ryan focused on the centrality of his pro-life position, the vice president stressed a focus on social justice.

Should we have a greater integration between church and state? Which is more important in terms of public policy -- abortion control or ensuring social justice? Ultimately, that will be a decision for each individual voter and the electorate. The good news is that this debate by framing the options clearly facilitated the decision-making process regarding this issue as it did for many others.

The same can be said for the closing comments. Vice President Biden went first here. The central focus of his closing was on personalizing the plight of those in needs. His comments included:

"People are in real trouble... My friend says that 30 percent of the American people are takers. Romney points out 47 percent of the people won't take responsibility.

He's talking about my mother and father. He's talking about the places I grew up in, my neighbors in Scranton and Claymont, and he's talking about -- he's talking about the people that have built this country. All they're looking for, Martha, all they're looking for is an even shot. Whenever you give them the shot, they've done it. They've done it. Whenever you've leveled the playing field, they've been able to move. And they want a little bit of peace of mind."

Ryan provided a more detached and quantitative critique in his closing. His comments included:

"We face a very big choice. What kind of country are we going to be? What kind of country are we going to give our kids? President Obama, he had his chance. He made his choices. His economic agenda, more spending, more borrowing, higher taxes, a government takeover of health care. It's not working. It's failed to create the jobs we need.

Twenty-three million Americans are struggling for work today. Fifteen percent of Americans are in poverty. This is not what a real recovery looks like. You deserve better."

In closing, Vice President Biden spoke from the heart. Congressman Ryan spoke from the head. Which is better -- the head or the heart? We believe we need both for good policy and good politics.

As we stated near the outset, we feel that the Joe Biden was the debate winner. But the real winner was the American people. That's because to use Congressman Ryan's words, "We face a very big choice. What kind of country are we going to be?"

It was important for the Democrats that the vice president "beat earnest." It was more important from the standpoint of democracy that we as citizens learned more about the content of their policy and the character of the candidates. We did and thus we can make our own choices on a more informed basis.

Thanks to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan for that. We say that with all earnestness and sincerity.

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