Ryan-Biden Smackdown Should Be No Contest

Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt Close

Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

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Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

When Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in their first presidential debate last week, and by common consent that’s what happened, he raised the pressure on Joe Biden to even the score in the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11.

Biden will have a tough time doing that. Even though Republicans will be trying to lower expectations for their candidate, Representative Paul Ryan, everyone knows he is a formidable and unflappable debater. He knows the ins and outs of domestic policy at least as well as Biden, and speaks more authoritatively about them. Ryan has also spent more elections having to win voters outside his party. What’s more, Biden has some predilections that will make his own job harder.

The vice president seems to believe -- judging by how he goes on about it -- that he has some special gift for connecting with middle-class voters. This may lead to overconfidence. Ryan has been at least as effective as Biden in making a blue-collar case for his party’s ideas.

Similarly, Biden has a reputation for his foreign-policy expertise, and Ryan has little experience in this area, so the vice president may be tempted to try to show up the younger man. It could backfire, though, since Biden’s reputation is largely undeserved. His record on Iraq -- opposing the first war in the early 1990s, supporting the second one, opposing the surge and uniting Iraq’s factions against him by proposing to split the country in three -- doesn’t seem like an advertisement for his great judgment. Agree with Ryan or not on foreign policy, he is fluent on it even if it hasn’t been the focus of his career.

More Combative

The Democratic reaction to Obama’s debate loss may also point Biden in the wrong direction. Among liberals -- and among some Democratic strategists, too -- the prevailing view is that Obama lost because he didn’t call Romney on his outrageous lies, and especially because he didn’t draw a stark contrast on Medicare and Social Security. Obama even said the two candidates had a “similar position” on the second program. Democrats will be urging Biden to be more combative.

The vice president isn’t above demagogic attacks: In his convention speech, for example, he claimed “experts” had said that one of Romney’s tax proposals would create 800,000 jobs, “all of them overseas, all of them.” In fact, Biden was referring to a study by one expert, and it didn’t say what he claimed: It estimated 800,000 jobs would be created overseas, but it didn’t examine the impact domestically. Yet Biden also likes to be liked, and has tended to take his hardest shots before partisan audiences rather than in front of the Republicans he is criticizing.

And the consensus Democratic view that Obama was too passive and disengaged probably misunderstands why he lost the debate. The real problem was that he was less up to speed on the arguments and counterarguments than Romney was. If Biden internalizes the Democratic conventional wisdom, he will be more engaged than Obama was -- but it won’t help unless he is also better informed. An amped-up yet inadequate response can come across as bluster.

A few things may work in Biden’s favor. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business (and an Obama supporter), points out that liberals are more apt to hold inaccurate stereotypes about conservatives’ values than vice versa. Perhaps this lack of familiarity with the conservative worldview made Obama less prepared for the debate than Romney was: Obama didn’t know what to say when a Republican made an argument that differed from the straw men the president loves to create. Maybe Biden -- who has built closer working relationships with conservatives in the Senate than Obama ever has -- will be prepared with more effective rebuttals.

Biden’s Gaffes

Democrats also probably don’t need to worry about Biden’s penchant for gaffes. Yes, he said last week that the middle class “has been buried the last four years,” which is maybe not the ideal message for a ticket asking for four more. He also has a history of making racially insensitive remarks -- about Indian-Americans as 7-Eleven owners and Obama as “clean” and “articulate.” As Ryan has pointed out, though, Biden typically makes such blunders when he is relaxed rather than in high- pressure situations, such as nationally watched debates. He didn’t say anything disastrous in his debate with Sarah Palin in 2008, and indeed is generally thought to have won it.

Biden gave a stronger, more tightly focused speech at the Democratic convention than Obama did. He will have to do better than Obama again this week. The race is a dead heat, according to the most recent polls, and the Democrats have been running as much against Ryan as against Romney. So the stakes are higher for Biden than they usually are in vice presidential debates. It’s safe to say that Republicans are looking forward to this one more than Democrats are.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.

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