The too-popular opinion of American vice presidents is that they are second-string backups to the president, wallflowers dispatched to look statesman-like at foreign weddings and funerals. But in fact, nine times in the nation’s history, vice presidents have succeeded presidents felled by health, assassination or political crisis. And several times, they have changed the course of America—the post-Civil War, pro-black Reconstruction fell apart under Andrew Johnson; Teddy Roosevelt became the first environmental conservationist; Harry Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Japan twice, ending World War II and starting the nuclear arms race; Lyndon Johnson started the War on Poverty, then abandoned it for the war in Vietnam while also signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and during his short stint, Gerald Ford officially ended the war in Vietnam and stabilized the country after the political devastation of Watergate and the first and so far only resignation of a president.
So the person who is elected to be “a heartbeat away” from the president matters. That’s why so many people were flummoxed and terrified by the politically craven choice of Sarah Palin to be elderly Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008. (See the HBO movie Game Change to get a better picture.) But what also stunned so many was Palin’s extraordinary popularity among the Rush Limbaugh ditto-heads, the fringe Religious Right, the “low-information” crowd that morphed into the Tea Party and women who longed to be feisty and independent.
The women’s vote was no longer a given Democratic demographic—something the LGBT community discovered the very hard way in 2008 during the Prop. 8 battle, when women switched their votes from supporting the civil rights afforded same-sex couples in marriage for the fearful myth that gay marriage would somehow harm their children. These myths are being played out once again in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota, where once again marriage equality is on the November ballot.
But what Palin’s candidacy foreshadowed was the abandonment of moderation within the Republican Party, and the increasing fidelity—on the threat of exile—to extreme positions that include obstruction as governance and lying Machiavelli-style as an acceptable means to achieve the paramount goal of winning. Palin effectively cleaved the country in two, though how deep that cut was only became clear with the 2010 elections and the triumph of the Tea Party.
Paul Ryan, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate, is a chiseled, ultra-conservative think tank version of Sarah Palin. He is the Tea Party’s Crown Prince. At one joint campaign appearance, Romney had to add his name to the crowd’s chant: “Romney-Ryan, Romney-Ryan,” suggesting that the Republican electorate expects Ryan to be the man behind the curtain pulling Romney’s strings. But during the Oct. 11 vice presidential debate in Kentucky against Vice President Joe Biden, Ryan pulled out his “good soldier” persona, modifying his extreme positions—especially on women’s reproductive rights—to appeal to independent and swing voters.
Reaction to that debate illuminated the country’s deep divide. Many Democrats were thrilled with Biden’s energetic, fact-driven, effusive performance, believing the VP “schooled” the much younger, seemingly hapless Ryan and staunching the disappointment many felt with President Obama’s performance in the first presidential debate. “A bunch of malarkey” became a new favorite phrase. Many Republicans, on the other hand, called Biden a “bully” for his condescending smiles and gestures. Ryan, they thought, won the debate by holding his own against the sitting VP, looking “cool” and in control, dignified as befitting a vice president who might have to deal with ill-mannered leaders.
Each scored their points, prompting most pundits to call the debate a draw, though fact-checkers disputed considerably more claims made by Ryan than Biden. And while no specific mention was made of LGBT issues such as marriage equality—Obama-Biden are for it, Romney-Ryan want a constitutional amendment banning it—the debate gave greater insight into the kind of vision Ryan and Romney would impose on America in Ryan’s response to questions about abortion and his religion.
Toward the end of the debate, moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked the two Catholic candidates about their views on religion and abortion—critical because the next president will no doubt have to replace one or two Supreme Court justices. If Romney is elected—as Biden pointed out during the debate—he would most likely appoint someone in the ultra-conservative tradition of his anti-gay, anti-woman advisor Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.
Religious conservatives have been relentless in their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, which grants women reproductive rights and autonomy over their own bodies. It is not too far-fetched to consider that, if the Supreme Court can overturn “settled law” such as Roe v. Wade, it could conceivably decide—if such cases are brought before it—to overturn Lawrence v. Kansas, the law decriminalizing sodomy. Remember, Lawrence overturned the court’s prior ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, so while overturning precedent is very rare, an ideologically driven court with a Religious Right majority could prove history wrong.
Ryan’s answer to the two-part religion/abortion question was telling, clearly obfuscating the separation between church and state.
“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,” Ryan said. “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.”
Ryan described seeing the ultrasound of his daughter at seven weeks. “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,” Ryan said. “Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don't agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.”
That’s a change in position for Ryan, who in 2007 basically advocated that a fertilized egg should be given the due process and equal protection rights of the 14th Amendment. He also raised the issue of contraception, claiming that Obamacare infringes on “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.” The lawsuits to which Ryan refers are not only about religious employers not having to pay for contraception but also not having to abide by state anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS.
“My religion defines who I am, and I've been a practicing Catholic my whole life,” Biden said. “And it 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 de fide 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, unlike my friend here, the congressman,” Biden said. “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. In my view, and the Supreme Court, I'm not going to interfere with that. 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.”
Biden called out Ryan’s changed position. “My friend [Ryan] says that he—well, I guess he accepts Governor Romney's position now, because in the past he has argued that there was—there's rape and forcible rape. He's argued that in the case of rape or incest, it was still—it would be a crime to engage in having an abortion. I just fundamentally disagree with my friend.”
“All I'm saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn't change the definition of life. That's a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” Ryan said.
Raddatz asked, “If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?”
Ryan responded, “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.”
That’s an argument for states’ rights for which we have historical precedent in slavery, and more recently, in how Republican-controlled state legislatures have almost eradicated a women’s right to control her own reproductive rights. Will state governments legislate control over contraception next? And consider: civil marriage is considered a matter for the states to decide. With so many state legislatures already having a law or constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality for same-sex couples, if Romney and Ryan are elected, would they keep their promise to the National Organization for Marriage and push through a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality?
Even if the old moderate Massachusetts Mitt Romney returns upon election, Paul Ryan would surely return to his deep Religious Right roots and remind Romney who got him elected in the first place.
Did the Vice Presidential debate really matter? Yes, in showing voters what a real Romney-Ryan administration would look like. That’s why voting this Nov. 6 could be the most important election ever.