The vice presidential debate last night was consequential for two minor reasons and one potentially major one.
First, dispirited Democrats could feel some of their mojo returning. The first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was devastating to the Obama campaign. It proved to donors, activists, journalists and the campaigns themselves what many had come to doubt: that Romney could fight his way back into contention. Momentum shifted overnight.
Vice President Joe Biden's aggressive performance last night may have annoyed some independent voters, but it's doubtful they will long remember it. It was worth the price of reviving a dispirited base.
For his part, Representative Paul Ryan showed he belonged on stage, which no one truly doubted to begin with. The skirmishing between the candidates over taxes, entitlements and Iran had no discernible winner. But one of the admirable things about Ryan is that, even after seven terms in Congress, he is a bad liar. When he doesn't like the taste of the words in his mouth, it shows.
Discussing abortion in the debate, he conveyed no such discomfort.
The key exchange is this:
RADDATZ: I want to go back to the abortion question here. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?
RYAN: We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.
For decades, pro-life politicians have navigated such questions with ease. (Romney has proved capable of playing the shot from multiple angles.) It's not that hard to signal commitment to a principle (abortion is immoral) while simultaneously signaling recognition of real-world exigencies (Roe v. Wade) that make acting on the principle just too darned difficult.
Unlike Romney, whose position on abortion has always depended on market conditions, Ryan's opposition is sincere. It shows. When Raddatz asked Ryan whether abortion-rights supporters should be "worried," he let out a very convincing sigh. It's clear the answer is yes. He then confirmed his body language by making no effort whatsoever to reassure suburban women voters about his intentions.
Because the most convincing part of the exchange is a wordless sigh, it's in many ways the ideal vehicle for that most visual medium, television. And with a little scaffolding, it will fit quite nicely at the center of a 30-second negative ad.
Ryan suffered criticism of his convention speech in Tampa because it aggressively (and needlessly) shaded some facts. In Danville, he showed his honesty. It's the only part of the debate that might cost him.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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