Watching Joe Biden and Paul Ryan tonight, I felt like I was watching two very different but very gifted runners. The difference was that Biden was running downhill.
Again and again, Ryan had to try to convince Americans that the dominant view they hold of his party is wrong. He tried desperately to convince voters that he loves Medicare as much as Democrats do. And he delivered his lines well. But once Biden looked at the camera and told Americans to follow their gut about who really believes in Medicare, he rendered Ryan’s performance irrelevant because Biden was confirming what most Americans already believe. It was the same on taxes. Ryan tried mightily to convince voters that Republicans don’t really want to cut taxes for the very rich but actually care about the little guy. But when the candidate atop your ticket is a private equity gazillionaire who has called 47 percent of Americans losers, you start from way behind. It was the same when Ryan tried to defend Social Security privatization. And when he tried to avoid saying he wanted to repeal Roe v. Wade. Each time, Ryan was trying to execute a rhetorical maneuver with a very high degree of difficulty. Biden, by contrast, was walking through an open door.
How times have changed. As recently as 2004, John Kerry strained to prove that he was really as tough on America’s enemies as George W. Bush. But he failed in large part because he couldn’t overcome the accumulated weight of 30 years of post-Vietnam public perceptions. In 1984, Walter Mondale tried mightily to prove that he wasn’t a profligate spender. In 1988, Michael Dukakis tried to be tough on crime. Tonight, by contrast, it was hard to think of an issue on which Biden was truly on the defensive. Yes, he had to defend the administration’s failure to overcome the recession but in doing so, he wasn’t battling any negative ideological predisposition from the public. Ryan hit him from the right on Iran and Syria, but with the GOP’s decades-long foreign policy advantage squandered, Biden didn’t have to strain to sound tough. To the contrary, he—with help from Martha Raddatz—refocused the discussion on the prospect of new wars in the Middle East, which forced Ryan to battle the public headwind created by George W. Bush.
The debate showed why it’s still Obama’s race to lose, if he remembers to show up for the next two debates. Some of the issues where the Republican Party brand was once strong—crime, welfare—no longer matter. And on some others—national security, fiscal management—the brand is no longer what it once was. As a result, Ryan had to change the perception of his party whereas Biden merely had to confirm the perception of his. The man with the easier job won.