US2012: Next up, the vice-presidential wrestling match

By J Brooks Spector 11 October 2012

This week’s television special in the American presidential sweepstakes is the debate between the two vice presidential candidates – Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and the current vice president, Joe Biden. A preview by J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The debate between the vice presidential candidates, on 11 October, will take place on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, with ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz will be the referee. While vice presidential debates have usually not been decisive in the actual election, they unquestionably serve to illuminate the quality of a presidential nominee’s thinking, judgment or political acumen.

John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin at first electrified the 2008 campaign– even though other less cogent aspects of her character eventually came to reflect poorly on McCain’s judgment. George HW Bush’s 1988 pick of little-known Indiana Senator Dan Quayle provided the most memorable quote of that election, when, in their debate Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen skewered Quayle over his contention that he, Quayle, was comparable to John Kennedy in 1960. As deft as the put-down was, however, the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket did not win the 1988 election. Four years earlier, Democratic candidate Geraldine Ferraro similarly verbally slapped back at then-Vice President Bush for clearly talking down to her on foreign policy. Her line gained the applause in the debate – but not the vice presidency.

This time around, however, a vice presidential debate may tilt the balance in the race. Depending on which poll one reads, and whether the poll measures registered voters, likely voters or is national or limited to crucial swing states, the Obama and Romney are separated by a hair’s breadth. Obama is slightly ahead in key battleground states; Romney is moving ahead nationally; or Obama still has a near-invisible edge. As a result, it is entirely possible the fortunes of the two candidacies may actually hinge on the perceptions of still-undecided voters’ of the skills and qualities of the two vice presidential candidates as a way of picking who the victor will be.

Washington Post political writer Dan Balz commented, “For the Obama team, Thursday will offer an opportunity to short-circuit the advances Romney has made since the first presidential debate. For the GOP, Ryan will have a chance to piggyback on Romney’s performance and solidify the gains their ticket has made in recent days. The stakes are also higher than usual because the participants have a standing beyond their roles as running mates. They are real players, not potted plants or a sideshow to the main event.” Moreover, University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer told the AP, “I’d be surprised if there weren’t far more fireworks in this debate than there were in the first presidential debate.”

Democratic strategists feel the president allowed far too many of Romney’s statements on issues like taxes and health care reforms go without rebuttal. In response, their campaign has issued a wide range of attack videos that bluntly talk about Romney’s misstatements on energy, health, taxes, education and Big Bird. These respond to the need, as explained by Jared Bernstein, a former Obama economic advisor, that “You have to call these guys out if they’re going to try to pretend to be people that they’re not.” 

In that vein, expect verbal blows over Ryan’s proposal to partially privatize Medicare, forcing retirees – according to Democrats – to pay thousands of dollars a year for medical treatment beyond the reach of Ryan-reformed Medicare.

The strategies by the two men will almost certainly very different. Biden will portray Ryan as an uncaring, heartless politician with the soul of an Excel spread sheet. He will want to provoke Ryan into sliding into legislative psycho-babble as he talks about how to shape a budget that cuts and cuts and cuts – especially taxes on the rich – and benefits for the poor, the elderly and disabled. The Biden touch will be to goad Paul Ryan into revealing himself as the monster Democratic campaigning has already said he is – only this time letting it happen from his own words.

Ryan must take the tack of man who is sadly and sorrowfully forced to tell the unpalatable truth – the US government budgetary machinery is badly out of kilter; the Obama team means well but it can’t deal with the task ahead; and Mitt Romney, ably assisted by his congressionally savvy sidekick, is the right man to sort things out and turn the economic and budgetary trend lines the other way. Along the way, he has to provoke Biden, a man whose style runs towards the verbose anyway, into going on at such length that any nuggets of information get swallowed up in the bloviating verbiage. And, as a bonus, Ryan’s goal must also be to push the vice president into committing a misstatement, slip of the tongue or slightly off kilter bon mot that comes out just wrong enough that spin doctors can label them as G-A-F-F-E-S and hope the media takes the bait and runs with it.

There are downsides to these strategies, of course. Under assault by Biden, Ryan could well come across as confident, supremely knowledgeable, plain-speaking and simply worried about the future. And Biden might well end up sounding like a man without ambition who just wants what’s good for the whole country, not just the richer half that goes to those Boca Raton fundraisers. And, worse for Ryan and Romney, Biden could end up showcasing his talent for connecting with voters at a visceral level, as he has done for decades.

But this debate isn’t really about Ryan’s or Biden’s suitability for office nearly as much as it will be about what kind of skewerings each of them can give to the ideas, political consistency (or lack of it), competence and temperamental suitability for the presidency of their respective running mate. In this sense, a second, more important task than attacking each other is to rubbish the claims from Romney and Obama as to their appropriateness for the presidency. 

Ryan needs to amplify the attack line that Obama is a nice family man who is simply swamped by the demands of this office. Biden has to paint Romney as a man who simply can’t make up his own mind without calculating how his ideas and policies relate solely to the political advantage that can be squeezed out of a position.

Ryan’s attack lines will be Benghazi, Libya, Benghazi, Libya, Benghazi, Libya, and the Obama administration’s inability to cope with the changes in the Middle East. Then there this that fatal weakness towards Russia and China; the incumbent’s incoherence on international trade policy; his failure to cause sufficient improvement to the economy (but no more of that 8% unemployment talk) over the past four years; too much spending on wasteful, politically connected bailouts and hand-outs; the wasteful mortgaging of the country’s future with the national debt and government deficit; and that stripping out $700 billion from Medicare and “funnelling it” to fund health care for those other people.

And as for Biden? Well, he’ll find his ammunition in the fact that Romney and Ryan can’t agree on whether they support the Bowles-Simpson Commission budget deficit reduction plan (Ryan served on the commission but refused to sign off on the conclusions); that Romney is actually the spiritual father of Obamacare (and so what’s his problem with it anyway?); that Romney seems to be shifting his position on “right to life”/“a woman’s right to choose” (aka abortion rights) even as we watch; and that neither Romney nor Ryan have any real experience with foreign affairs, that lots of bluster, huffing, puffing and waving around those metaphorical big sticks is a whole lot easier than actually trying to solve international crises.

When Biden’s done with that, he will move on to charges that while Romney wants to butcher Big Bird and spend more on the military than even the military wants, that those R and R boys will end up taking a huge whack out of virtually every civilian program in the budget if their tax and budget plans are to be believed (and, oh, by the way, which one of Romney’s plans should we believe, and is it Romney or Ryan’s plan that holds sway?). And when he’s tired of that we’ll hear just a little bit more about Bain Capital and its job destroying, shipping-jobs-to-China-style of economic growth.

Ryan still remains the least well-known of the four men contesting for national office in 2012, and Biden still has a shot at doing the defining. This is in part because Ryan has only recently come on to the national stage, his reputation limited to being an Ayn Rand-spouting, slash and burn budget cutter within the Republican congressional caucus and the House Budget Committee. He gained a reputation in Washington as one of the party’s new breed, a policy-wonk intellectual who has spent virtually his entire career in think tanks, congressional staff positions or in office. Curiously, this acclaim within the Republican Party has come about within a party that usually denigrates – at least in public – anyone who is a creature of Washington and its insider political culture.

In a long article earlier in the year profiling Ryan, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza noted that when Ryan first won his seat in congress in 1998, he was only 28 years old. “At the time, as a junior member with little clout, Ryan was a reliable Republican vote for policies that were key in causing enormous federal budget deficits: sweeping tax cuts, a costly prescription-drug entitlement for Medicare, two wars, the multibillion-dollar bank-bailout legislation known as TARP. In all, five trillion dollars was added to the national debt. In 2006 and 2008, many of Ryan’s older Republican colleagues were thrown out of office as a result of lobbying scandals and overspending. Ryan told me recently that, as a fiscal conservative, he was ‘miserable during the last majority’ and is determined ‘to do everything I can to make sure I don’t feel that misery again.’ ” This appears to be his first really big chance to have his way.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, has been in public life and in the national eye since he was 30 – all of it in elective office. From an early tragedy when members of his family were in a fatal accident before he had taken office as a Democratic senator from Delaware, Biden carved out a niche as a senator who commuted to work in Washington from nearby Delaware by train. He has been a close student of foreign affairs, something that gave him standing as the Obama administration threaded its way out of Iraq and then on the same glide path from Afghanistan. 

Looking forward to Thursday, however, one thing is for certain. Regardless of how the debate is finally scored, both candidates will be in the auditorium, armed and dangerous, primed with examples of the other side’s perfidy and poised to reach well beyond the live audience. For the Romney ticket it is a chance to put another nail in Obama’s chances for a second term. For the Obama-Biden team, it is a chance to get back in the game emotionally and gain some momentum and traction with less than four weeks to go till Election Day. DM

Read more:

  • 2012 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates at the site
  • “Five things to watch in the U.S. vice presidential debate,” on Yahoo News
  • “Vice presidential debate could be a tale of two Ryans,” on Reuters
  • “Big stakes for Biden and Ryan in VP debate,” on The Washington Post
  • Five Thirty Eight column by Nate Silver on The New York Times

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden (R) speaking in Charlotte, North Carolina September 6, 2012, and Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, speaking in Tampa, Florida, August 29, 2012, are shown in this combination photo. REUTERS/Mike Segar (L)/Jason Reed (R)


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