What To Look For In The VP Debate

Thursday’s VP debate in Louisville – Muhammad Ali’s old home town – promises to be riveting TV, even if the absence of Sarah Palin means that, unlike in 2008, it’s unlikely that the VP debate will outdraw the presidential debates for ratings. On the Republican side, expectations are running high: Paul Ryan is a master of verbal combat, and hopes are high that he can build on Mitt Romney’s TKO of President Obama in the first debate. On the Democratic side, the pressure is on Vice President Biden to break the Romney-Ryan ticket’s recent momentum. Here’s what to watch for.
Who’s Ready For Prime Time? Ryan has a long record of winning debates on the cable networks, disarming hostile interviewers and even dressing down the President face to face; he won’t be shy about going after the VP. But a stand-up one-on-one debate with canned topics and time limits is a new format for him, and may not play to his strengths the way a more free-for-all format does, plus he needs to look presidential. Biden, on the other hand, is a highly experienced debater, a veteran of two presidential runs who came to the Senate during the Nixon years. But he may be rusty (as noted yesterday, Ryan has done 197 interviews since joining the ticket; Biden has done just a lone print interview in that time and hasn’t answered questions on camera since the spring Meet the Press interview where he went off-script and ended up forcing President Obama prematurely to state a position on same-sex marriage). His propensity for gaffes and extravagant fabulism is legendary. And Biden will be 70 next month; he may not be as quick on his feet as he used to be. We’ll get a sense early on of which of them is on their game.
Playing Two Different Games: Jonathan Last aptly describes Biden as “an asymmetric opponent” – i.e., he may not even try to engage Ryan on Ryan’s turf of arguing on a macro level about the budget, taxes, the operation of entitlement programs and economic growth and competitiveness. Look for Biden to counter in two ways: go small, by emoting and telling individual voters’ stories, and change the subject to social issues and foreign affairs (Ryan’s no neophyte on the latter – he’s been in Congress through the Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya wars and the many debates in between – but it’s not his main area of expertise).
Ryan’s district, and even his family, have often leaned Democratic, so he knows how to play on the turf of Biden’s more-blue-collar-than-thou shtick. But he needs to stay on his message and not let Biden throw him completely off the subject of the unsustainable economic and fiscal picture under President Obama.
Bait and Switch? I referred to this in my preview of the first debate – Biden may well leave Ryan himself largely alone and force him to defend against personal and record attacks on Romney over his wealth, taxes, Bain, Romneycare, flip-flopping, etc. Then again, attacking the more conservative Ryan may be too tempting for Biden to pass up, especially if the Obama campaign sticks with its obvious view that this election is a base-turnout contest.
Tall Tale Time: Biden can also confound Ryan’s intense preparedness on the facts by his facility for just plain making stuff up, as streiff has previously detailed. Bill Clinton may be the best liar in politics, but Clinton’s lies – however brazen – were and are usually calculating enough that you could see them coming and try to prepare for them. Biden’s a different animal completely; he gets rolling, and the next thing you know, the Germans have bombed Pearl Harbor. He makes up pure blarney with a free-flowing creativity that defies preparation, like this notorious piece of alternative history from his debate with Palin:

When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.”
Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.

If you’re wondering when the U.S. and France joined forces to drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon, rest assured that you didn’t miss something – nothing like that ever happened. But Biden’s been in DC so long and says this sort of thing off the top of his head with such bravado, it could be easy for Ryan to miss the opportunity to debunk it if he’s stuck scratching his head trying to figure out what Biden could possibly be talking about.
The Ghost of Biden Past: Biden has his own vulnerabilities, and Ryan may try to exploit them. Just in the past two weeks, we had Biden on the campaign trail saying that the middle class had been “buried” under Obama and that he and Obama were planning a trillion dollars in tax hikes after the election. There’s also an under-exploited one, albeit a line that could be a double-edged sword: when Biden brags about getting Osama bin Laden, Ryan could drill him on the fact that Biden himself reportedly opposed the operation (the downside is that this makes the no-brainer decision sound like Obama actually had a hard choice to make). There’s a much longer record there to work from, and while most of it seems like ancient history (especially since Biden’s not the president), a choice shot or two at things Biden himself has said and done over the years could put him in an unaccustomed defensive posture.
Moderation In Moderation? Democrats were vocal after the first debate about Jim Lehrer’s failure to protect Obama from Romney – and himself – by (1) not cutting off the candidates when their answers ran long and (2) not asking tough followups to Romney. There will be intense pressure on moderator Martha Raddatz to go after Ryan, or at least cut him off. My own view is that the main jobs of a debate moderator are to prevent the candidates from interrupting each other, ask questions pointed enough to get them to disagree with each other, but otherwise “let ’em play.” We’ll see if Raddatz tries to make herself more of a story than the aging Lehrer did.