A few months ago, Thursday’s vice-presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden had all the anticipation of a Meet the Press face-off between James Carville and Mary Matalin: high-profile surrogates to the campaign slinging mud and talking points with little chance of shifting an election whose results seemed increasingly clear.
But a bumbling President Obama at last week’s debate has breathed new life into the Romney campaign and turned the Ryan-Biden debate into Slugfest, Part II.
“The vice-presidential debate can stop the free fall of the incumbent,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for Public Policy. She cited as proof Dick Cheney’s debate against John Edwards in 2004, which propped up the Bush campaign after the president’s lackluster performance against John Kerry. Lloyd Bentsen’s evisceration of Dan “You Are No Jack Kennedy” Quayle also provided a momentary lift to Michael Dukakis in 2004, she said.
“It can be an interlude which changes the present dialogue about the momentum of the campaign,” Jamieson added. “They can raise the question of, is this person qualified to be the president, which can temporarily redirect the momentum of the campaign.”
Because there is no such thing as trying to come across as “vice presidential,” both debaters on the undercard can typically be expected to be a tad more aggressive and pointed than their top-of-the-ticket counterparts. But this time out, Biden and Ryan have reason to curb their more ferocious instincts—both are at the top of the list of 2016 contenders, assuming that Obama holds on to his slight lead, and both have seen their stock drop in this year’s presidential campaign. The debate then presents a peculiar balancing act, one that got harder after last week’s stake-raising debate: how to attack your opponent and boost your ticket without sacrificing your own likability and political prospects.
“For Biden, remember a while back there were rumors he was going to get replaced on the ticket by Hillary Clinton,” said Adam Hanft, who blogs about political messaging. “There have been gaffes, faux pas. I think it is an opportunity for him to reestablish himself as a credible voice for the administration and make up for his self-inflicted wounds. Ryan had a few dings in the campaign too, but all of that could be wiped away after the debate.”
Before Biden became a punchline, the one who “went out over his skis” on gay marriage and told rallies that Republicans wanted to send them back to slavery or that the middle class was suffocating under the administration’s policies, he was lauded by Democrats. He was the wise man in the early deliberations about Afghanistan, and his workingman cred meant that the White House could send him to stump in places where Obama wouldn’t be well received.
“This debate is an opportunity for Biden to look like he has gravitas, that he is a serious actor in the Obama administration and a key adviser to the president,” said David Mark, author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning. “It is a tricky thing. They are supposed to be speaking for their bosses but they have their own reputations to defend.”
And before he was selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan was hailed as something of a Capitol Hill wunderkind, willing to speak hard truths about the budget or entitlements, and basking in the praise of Republicans and Democrats alike. After a few months in the ringer of the campaign, however, he has found himself mocked for everything from shading the truth at his convention speech to inflating his marathon time. The budget that bears his name is no longer seen as the fair-minded deficit destroyer it once was, and even conservatives are angry that he has been muted by the Romney campaign.
After 2008’s face-off with Sarah Palin and two presidential runs of his own, Biden’s prowess and limitations as a debater are well known. He is still as liable to say anything and to implode Obama’s chances for reelection as he is to disembowel Ryan and look like he is having fun doing it. After all, it was Biden who helped end Rudy Giuliani’s presidential ambitions by describing him as capable of uttering only a noun, a verb, and 9/11 in every sentence.
The Obama campaign “needs to break the negative news cycle that they are in. These polls keep coming out, and they will remain on the trajectory they are on probably until the next presidential debate,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist. “Chicago needs Biden to break that by hitting Ryan on his budget, on Medicare, on tax cuts. I think you look for him to empty the clip on Ryan and see which ones shoot straight, and then you look for Obama to repackage those in his next debate.”
The Romney campaign is furiously trying to downplay expectations about Ryan’s performance.
“Joe Biden is as experienced a debater as anyone in national politics, and he has a deep résumé in domestic policy and foreign affairs,” said Brendan Buck, a campaign spokesman. “This is Congressman Ryan’s first time on this big stage, so we’re taking preparation seriously. After the president’s performance last week, we know Joe Biden will be coming at us like a cannonball.”
According to the campaign, Ryan spent three and a half days in Virginia last week focused on just debate prep, and is spending two days in Florida doing the same with Biden stand-in Ted Olson. And although Ryan has shown a mastery of policy details when delivering a lecture to Washington think tanks, his numbers haven’t often been challenged like they are sure to be on Thursday.
Those who have faced Ryan before in debates say Biden has a difficult task ahead of him.
“It was like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” said Marge Krupp, an engineer who ran against Ryan in 2008 as a Democrat for his Wisconsin congressional seat. “He would just change his story as convenient and make up facts to fit what he wanted to say.”
Krupp, who, it should be said, went on to lose to Ryan by 30 points, said he played fast and loose with the truth, suggesting at one point that Wisconsin should raise revenue by opening up to gas and oil drilling, although “no oil or gas executive in his right mind would drill here.”
“He comes across as a nice guy and a very serious man, but how does that song go? ‘A smiling face is sometimes crafty,’” Krupp said.