If tonight’s debate follows the pattern of past vice-presidential showdowns, then we could be in for an entertaining evening. Some of the more famous or infamous moments of political exchanges have come during the veep debates. Lloyd Bentsen’s quip destroying Dan Quayle is certainly the most famous. But who can forget Sarah Palin’s walking on stage and asking now-Vice President Biden if she could “call him Joe”? There was also Bob Dole’s poor performance against Walter Mondale on the heels of Gerald Ford’s meltdown against Jimmy Carter, and the unforgettable Admiral Stockdale’s epistemological moment wondering who he was and why he was there in the debate.
While vice presidential debates are not nearly as consequential as the presidential counterparts, they help reinforce the narrative of the debates and the campaign generally. They are another opportunity to advance a campaign’s message; we should expect to hear many of the same arguments that were made in last week’s presidential debate. But what will be interesting is how they are delivered by these different messengers--one who is new to the business of national campaigns and the other who is a more experienced warrior. We should see if Congressman Ryan is able to deliver his brief in the same visionary frame that Governor Romney was able to muster last week--or if he falls prey to the snare of policy-speak that burdens so many members of Congress who run for national office. He must present himself as a well-informed CEO rather than a managerial Chief Financial Officer. One sign of how Congressman Ryan is handling this expectation will be how much the debate becomes about the Ryan plan rather than the Romney vision.
We should pay attention to which Vice President Biden shows up and if the Democrats’ message has been altered since last week’s debacle. In 2008, Vice President Biden was measured and respectful of Sarah Palin. He was able to stay on message, avoid gaffes and turn in a generally respectable performance. But his presidential primary debates were less than spectacular and culminated in 2008 with his clumsy description of then Senator Obama as the "first mainstream African-American (candidate) who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Will it be the genial or edgy Biden that shows up to debate Congressman Ryan tomorrow?
Vice Presidential debates also allow audiences to judge if the candidate is prepared to step into the shoes of the presidency should that unfortunate necessity arise. Biden presumably passed this test in the last election, but audiences will be examining Congressman Ryan’s preparedness for the top job. The pressure is squarely on Ryan on this score. Audiences will want to know if he is competent enough and possesses the qualities necessary to lead the nation in the event of a crisis. By all accounts Congressman Ryan has a mastery of the economy, but can he take that knowledge and fashion it into a successful performance in his first debate on a stage this big against a more experienced political combatant?
It will important for tonight’s debaters to not outshine their bosses or to deliver an inconsistent message. Jack Kemp’s famous verbal “hug” of President Clinton and Vice President Gore was the exact opposite tone taken by Bob Dole in his 1996 debate. And this is where a potential pitfall waits for Vice President Biden. While conventional wisdom is that Biden needs to be more strident in his debate with Ryan than President Obama was with Governor Romney, the inconsistency in message might present an opportunity for even greater advantage by Ryan. If the president didn’t make a particular argument in the debate, what justifies its use by Biden? Additionally, if Biden is indeed more strident, it will only highlight the weakness of Obama’s performance last week.
We should pay attention to who makes the most significant error in the debate. The danger of having the vice president “bring the heat” is that he sometimes throws more “bean balls” than “strikes.” While Biden is never shy about going on the offensive, his more shocking gaffes have come when his attacks became unbridled. While most pundits agree that Biden must strike, the campaign may be calculating the risk of letting “Joe be Joe” in front of millions of people. Another “chains” moment will only take the Obama campaign further off message and make the president’s task in the next debate all the more challenging. The pressure will be on Ryan to stay on message, but there is nothing that suggests he is gaffe-prone. Still, he must avoid the moments that have beset younger challengers like Quayle and John Edwards at the hands of more experienced opponents like Bentsen and Dick Cheney.
There is little to gain, but much to lose for the vice president. It is doubtful that Biden can blunt the momentum gained by Governor Romney against President Obama, and an even smaller chance that he could change the narrative from last Wednesday. But a poor performance could serve to further entrench the narrative that the Romney campaign has found its message while the Obama campaign is hopelessly off its own. Or at least for this week. For Ryan the task is to stay on offense and continue the assault on the Obama record started by Governor Romney in last week’s debate. Whoever can stay on offense and avoid the gaffe or the policy bog will have the upper hand in the debate.