Republicans who view Joe Biden as a gaffe machine are fantasizing that he’ll stand at the debate podium tonight and cut loose with something like this:
“Wow, this debate is a big effing deal, a big opportunity for me to explain how the middle class has been buried these past four years, but I gotta say that, God love him, my president is a mainstream African American who’s articulate, bright, and clean, and that’s what American diversity is all about, which is why I can walk into any 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts in Delaware and hear Indian accents…”
But the odds are strong that Joe Biden’s feet will stay on the floor, six feet south of his mouth. In debate forums dating back decades, the vice president has proved himself to be a disciplined competitor. And the odds are strong that he’ll stay in character tonight, during the underticket debate, as he seeks to stanch the Democratic bleeding that began last Wednesday, when his boss delivered what was arguably the worst-ever performance by an incumbent.
Biden is also fortunate to be debating Paul Ryan, a right-wing ideologue whose signature issues – slashing the safety net, incrementally privatizing Social Security, and turning Medicare into voucher program – are broadly unpopular with women and seniors. Moreover, Ryan is the policy point man for the House Republicans, who are bvroadly unpopular as well. Biden has a juicy opportunity to tie Ryan – and Mitt Romney – to the tainted Republican “brand,” in essence doing the basic job that President Obama failed to do.
A debater typically wins by keeping the opponent on defense. Biden will likely demand that Ryan explain the inexplicable math of the Republican ticket’s sketchy budget plan – the notion that it’s somehow possible to enact big tax cuts and pump up military spending without deepening the deficit. In addition, Biden will likely demand that Ryan specify the tax loopholes for the rich that he and Romney would supposedly eliminate. Thus far, Ryan has merely bobbed and weaved; 11 days ago, when Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace demanded some specifics, Ryan replied: “I don’t have the time. It would take me too long to go through all the math.”
Biden will probably invite Ryan to take the time.
Better yet, Biden is a seasoned hand on international issues; he was already serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when young Ryan was still in Wisconsin, working as a marketing consultant in the family business. Ryan has virtually no foreign policy expertise, and that matters in a vice presidential debate, because viewers at home ask themselves, “If something were to happen to the president, which of these guys seems better prepared to be commander in chief?”
Biden’s task tonight brings to mind Dick Cheney’s brief in the 2004 vice presidential debate. Days earlier, incumbent George W. Bush had been widely judged the loser in his first debate with John Kerry, and the polls had measured a modest bounce for the Democratic challenger. Cheney’s job was to stanch the Republican bleeding. In the debate that night, he was the gravitas guy, the wily and experienced Washingtonian; his opponent was another telegenic young pup from Capitol Hill, rising star John Edwards (in pre-sex scandal mode). The debate wasn’t particularly memorable – few debates are – except for the numerous occasions when Cheney successfully questioned Edwards’ fitness to be commander-in-chief. Edwards had a poor Senate attendance record, and Cheney (who, as veep, presided over the Senate), nailed him with this killer sound bite: “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on stage tonight.”
In fairness to Paul Ryan, he’s far more schooled in policy than Edwards ever was. And even though Ryan’s budget agenda is the stuff of right-wing fantasy, and his opposition to abortion is the stuff of Todd Akin extremism, he has the telegenic chops. TV is a visual medium (often at the expense of the substantive spoken word), and when Ryan is on his game, he’s the choirboy next door. So Biden’s other job is to forge a gut bond with the middle class, as he did in his convention speech (expect to hear some passionate anecdotes), and to demonstrate that the choirboy next door is a zealot whose House Republican policies would hurt the neighborhood.
Anxious Democrats, thirsting for blood tonight, would love to hear Biden cut loose with a show-stopper like this: “Congressman Ryan, I knew Ayn Rand. I used to read Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was on bookshelves of mine. Congressman, you are Ayn Rand.”
But, fantasies aside, Biden will have multiple opportunities to stop the bleeding. Indeed, conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted this morning, “GOPers already proclaiming (that) Ryan will drub Biden tonight are too overconfident.” He got that right.
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