Pitfalls in the Vice Presidential Debate


Fresh of Mitt Romney’s knock-out in the first Presidential Debate last Wednesday, Republicans are already licking their chops at the prospect of Paul Ryan going up against Joe Biden on Thursday.  Allow me to interject a note of caution.

There’s little question that Paul Ryan is both smarter and sharper than Biden.  His celebrated dissection of Obama’s fraudulent Medicare accounting at the Health Care Summit – which Obama had expected to run as an undergraduate-level seminar in political surrender – remains a classic, and as relevant to the Medicare/Obamacare debate today as it was then.

Biden, on the other hand, has trouble remembering what state he’s in, what century he’s in, and even counting to four.  If debates were all about pure policy wonk smarts, Biden would be better off sending an empty chair.  In fact, he might be the only national-level candidate to engage in a drinking game at his own debate.

But debates are also about personality and succinctly encapsulating issues in a way that resonates with the average voter, and Biden actually has some gift for that.  Consider the story he tells about his father, the one where he quotes him as saying, “Show me your budget, and I’ll show you what you care about.”  There’s a lot of common-sense, common-touch truth in that statement.  It takes considerable political skill and stage presence to pull off the obvious rejoinder – “Well, then, I guess we know what Harry Reid’s Senate cares about, or doesn’t.” – without coming across as a smart-aleck.  In this regard, Ryan’s relative youth, and his tendency to speak a little more quickly than Biden, could work against him.

The other trap is one that Romney deftly avoided in the first debate – the Democrats’ desire to turn this election into a public relitigation of Griswold v. Connecticut.   Romney so completely controlled the debate last Wednesday, that Obama could only weakly wave the e-word, “extreme,” at the train as it blitzed by his platform.  Biden will do everything he can to bring up contraception and abortion (and the Clinton policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”).  He’ll do this with the expectation that the press Democrats with bylines will pick up the theme, and prime the pump for Obama to do the same at the Town Hall debate on the 16th.  Any success in resurrecting what the Democrats clearly see as their closing argument will help stall the Republican momentum that’s picked up in the last few days.

At this point, there’s little doubt that Republicans are more eager to vote for their guy, and more eager to vote, than the Democrats are, but the Veep debate offers a number of chances for the Dems to do what they did in 2010 in Colorado, and negate a significant Republican edge in early voting by scaring younger, independent, suburban women into providing a razor-thin margin of victory.

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