Who's Got the Edge Going Into the VP Debate?

Both sides are trying to lower expectations. But who should have the bigger handicap?

The expectations battle is raging between Democrats and Republicans, each of them determined to prove that their guy is going to . . . lose tonight. That way, they hope to eke out a "surprise" win in the media and give their campaign a little mojo.

Avik Roy, one of my favorite health care writers, who also happens to advise the Romney campaign on health care issues, lays out the case for Joe Biden winning tonight. All of his points seem pretty strong to me, but let's look at the case for the defense, since I freely confess that I actually have no idea who is going to win tonight.

The first is the obvious fact that Joe Biden's feet seem almost inexorably drawn to his mouth when he speaks extemporaneously. Roy points out that this may actually be a benefit to Biden: since the media's expecting a bipedal auto-tonsilectomy, Biden gets a boost just by avoiding any obvious bloopers. On the other hand, there's no guarantee that he avoids those bloopers.

Biden, however, has a bigger problem, one that I think hurt Obama in the debates: Ryan knows exactly what attacks the administration is going to make. They've been hearing them from the administration, and the media, for the last six months. That makes it easy for them to prep responses to those attacks. I would be willing to bet that Ryan, like Romney before him, has been locked in a room with someone who has been hammering him about heartless Republican budgets, huge tax cuts for the rich, and so forth. They will have answers to those attacks. Joe Biden doesn't know what those answers will be, so he faces uphill sledding.

Of course, the administration also generally knows what the main attack will be: you suck at running the economy. But that's a harder charge to answer, because there's actual evidence that voters will see. If Ryan says "We're going to eliminate deductions to make my tax cuts revenue neutral, and if they aren't revenue neutral, we won't do them", it's very hard to call him a liar. And no, it's not because Democrats are too afraid to speak truth to power, or because American voters don't like aggression. It's because that's not actually a lie; it's a promise. You may disbelieve the promise, but I'm afraid you can't simply instruct the voters to agree with you. "You won't either!" is kindergarten-level debating tactics that just make you look like a petty, sniping fool.

On the other hand, when Ryan says "The economy sucks," what is Biden supposed to say: "No, you're wrong!" That would look idiotic. As I said after the last debate, the advantage the incumbent gets is name recognition and a generalized preference for the devil you know. The advantage the challenger gets is that he can promise things that he can't yet be faulted for not delivering.

Also, even if the administration has a generalized idea of what the attack will be, they don't know the specifics, while I think at this point, we've dredged up every conceivable anecdote about Mitt Romney's time at Bain, and Paul Ryan's drive to kill grandma with his newfangled voucher system. There have been more-than-scattered complaints that the media has been too kind to Obama, and I think this is one place that it's really showing. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are used to being hammered hard over every position, and they're ready for it in the debate. Last week, Obama clearly was not. Tonight we'll see if the administration has managed to hammer Biden into shape.