Biden-Ryan debate: why it doesn’t matter, and why it does (+video)
Vice presidential debates have no history of swinging presidential races. But after President Obama's subpar performance last week, Vice President Joe Biden faces pressure Thursday night.
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Another likely flashpoint is Libya, hot on the heels of Wednesday’s congressional hearing on the attack at the US consulate in Benghazi last month that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. The first Obama-Romney debate did not touch on foreign policy, and so Ryan will have his ticket’s first opportunity before a nationally televised audience to go after the Obama administration over the security breach and the administration’s shifting account of the events that led to the attack.Skip to next paragraph
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The risk for Ryan will come over his modest experience in foreign policy. Biden is highly experienced, not just as vice president but also as former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Still, the episode has dented the Obama administration’s positive image on national security, and as long as Ryan does not appear to be politicizing tragedy, his ticket could gain.
Style could be just as important as substance when Biden and Ryan go toe-to-toe. Last week, Obama took as much flak for his listless demeanor as for the actual words that came out of his mouth.
“Biden has to take the fight to Ryan, but he has to do it in a way that doesn’t make him look like an unpleasant person,” says Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Biden also needs to appeal emotionally to the audience as a “nice person,” while he’s “carving up his opponent with a stiletto,” says Mr. Schier.
And he has to do so without misspeaking. Biden has a well-documented history of gaffes, but if his successful debate four years ago against GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is any guide, he is capable of verbal discipline when the stakes are high. Against Ms. Palin, Biden had to avoid appearing condescending, given her light résumé on national policy. Ryan isn’t a policy novice, but he’s young and so the gray-haired Biden still has to avoid appearing to talk down to the congressman from Wisconsin.
There’s also an experience gap on the national debate stage. Ryan will be a first-timer, compared with both Biden – who ran for president twice before joining the Obama ticket – and Romney, who took part in roughly 30 debates during primary season and evidently honed his skills.
Ryan and Biden’s gap in age, in fact, is historic for major-party vice presidential nominees, with Ryan in his early 40s and Biden pushing 70. Their age difference is so large – Generation X versus the Silent Generation – that they skip right over Baby Boomers, the large generation that is flooding the social programs that have put the nation on an unsustainable fiscal path.
If Ryan and Biden’s ages provide contrast, their Roman Catholicism represents common ground, albeit from different sides of the political spectrum. Ryan’s Catholicism manifests itself in his strong advocacy for the rights of the unborn, whereas for Biden, his faith emphasis lies in programs for the poor.
In the end, the importance of the Ryan-Biden debate will lie in what the two men leave to their principals in the second presidential debate, to be held Oct. 16 at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York.
“In a close race, everything matters,” he says.