Expectations Run High for Ryan, but Biden in Good Position Ahead of Debate

Sophie Quinton
National Journal

Conservatives have been licking their chops in anticipation of a debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden ever since Ryan was announced as the Republican vice presidential candidate. After GOP nominee Mitt Romney's strong performance in the first presidential debate, the pressure is on Ryan to maintain the momentum, and many on the right don't think that will be difficult.

Confidence in Ryan’s intellect is matched only by a sense that the gaffe-prone vice president can’t be taken seriously. "Ryan is going to be a great, articulate spokesperson out there. He is going to wipe up the floor with Biden in the debates," Republican strategist Ed Rollins told Fox News this summer. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said of Biden: “I think the vice president of the United States has become a laugh line on late-night television.”

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Biden’s reputation took another hit this past week, when he told a campaign crowd that the middle class has been “buried” during the four years of President Obama’s leadership. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, hopped on the phone with reporters to declare, “Vice President Biden finally got something right.” The latest CNN/ORC International poll found that among likely voters, 55 percent think Ryan is likely to do a better job in the debate than Biden. Only 39 percent gave Biden the advantage.

But Biden’s no fool, and the sky-high expectations for Ryan could set him up for failure. The House Budget Commmittee chairman from Wisconsin may be smart, but he struggles to give policy specifics when pressed by journalists. Biden may make clumsy remarks, but he’s a seasoned debater, with a gut connection to the middle-class voters who’d be hit by budget cuts Ryan has proposed.

The vice president is “a really knowledgeable debater,” said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, host of The War Room on Current TV and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s stand-in during Biden’s 2008 debate prep.

Both Ryan and Biden will need to suppress their inner wonks and avoid speaking “in the acronyms of Washington,” Granholm said. “On the vice president’s side, the benefit for him is he connects with real people better than anybody,” she said. In the first presidential debate, both Romney and Obama had a tendency to slide into policy arcana rather than speaking directly to voters.

There’s a buzz around the vice presidential debate on Thursday in Kentucky because the two candidates know their policy, said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s chief of staff for 19 years. In particular, there’s a sense among Republicans “that maybe Governor Romney hasn’t been the best messenger for what they believe in,” Kaufman added.

Ryan’s reputation as an “intellectual policy wonk” carries real vulnerabilities, said Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. If Biden “can catch him in an error, he’ll be able to dislodge the dominant narrative about Ryan,” she said.  

For a self-described “numbers guy,” Ryan can be oddly hazy on specifics, analysts noted. In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, Ryan wouldn’t say how much the GOP ticket’s proposed tax cuts would cost, just that they’d be paid for by eliminating loopholes in the tax code. “You haven’t given me the math,” Wallace prodded.

“Well, I don’t have the ti—It would take me too long to give you all of the math,” Ryan said. “But let me say it this way: You can lower tax rates by 20 percent across the board by closing loopholes and still have preferences for the middle class.”

“What intellectual policy wonks are supposed to be able to do is clearly communicate policy alternatives,” Jamieson said. 

The Obama campaign has been equally hazy on many of their policy specifics, Jamieson said. But Biden isn’t expected to be as adept at explaining policy as Ryan.  

Biden isn’t, as Giuliani insisted, “not very smart.” The vice president is a seasoned veteran of the Senate and the president’s right-hand-man. Heading into the 2008 vice presidential debate, the assumption was that Biden would need to rein in his smarts and be patient with Palin. Biden told reporters on Thursday that he's been reading up on Ryan's positions and is looking forward to the debate. "I don't want to say anything in the debate that's not completely accurate," Biden said.

Biden may have a tendency to misspeak when fired up by crowds, but he doesn’t tend to put his foot in his mouth during debates. And while a Biden gaffe during the debate might fire up Twitter, an inability on Ryan’s part to clarify the Romney ticket’s policies would ultimately be more damaging.

“This is a debate that’s not going to be about Biden’s gaffes and Ryan’s marathon times,” said Samuel L. Popkin, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and author of The Candidate: What it Takes to Win (and Hold) the White House. “It’s going to be about who’s kidding who,” he said, and who’s got the best plan for the country.

Popkin said that a vice presidential candidate’s main debate goal is to advocate for the principal’s policies and reassure voters that, should the worst befall the president, the country would be in good hands. If the vice presidential candidate emerges from the debates as the star of the show, that's a problem, he said.

The American people know that Biden may not always say the right thing, but he speaks from the heart, Kaufman said. “His great strength is that people look at him and say, ‘I’ll tell you one thing about Joe Biden: He’ll tell you what he thinks.’ ”

During the Biden-Palin debate, Biden was able to deal a body blow to Palin’s perceived advantage: her down-home, mother-of-five persona.

“You’ve been very kind suggesting that my only Achilles heel is my lack of discipline,” Biden said, responding to a question about his weakness. “Others talk about my excessive passion. I’m not going to change.”

In typical fashion, Biden didn’t stop there. He went on to talk about his hardscrabble childhood and the car crash that claimed the lives of his first wife and baby daughter and badly wounded his sons.

“I understand what it’s like to sit around a kitchen table and have a father who says, ‘Champ, I’ve gotta leave, because there’s no jobs here,’ ” Biden said. Choking up, he continued, “The notion that somehow, because I’m a man I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone—I don’t know what it’s like to have a child that you’re not sure is gonna—is gonna make it.”  

Biden will bring his gut sense of middle-class struggle, and the passion that makes him popular, to the debate floor this year. And he’ll be standing beside a man who has pledged to gut many programs middle-class families care about, without giving specifics. Ryan will have more time to prepare, but Biden may have the advantage. Explain yourself, champ.