Biden-Ryan debate: why it doesn’t matter, and why it does

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.

Eric Gay/AP
A worker passes under relief sculpture of Vice President Joe Biden (l.) and Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, in preparation for the Vice Presidential debate at Centre College, on Wednesday in Danville, Ky. The debate is schedule for Thursday.
David Goldman/AP
Workers carry chairs through the media center ahead of Thursday's vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Vice presidential debates are usually just a curiosity. The two people on stage are the understudies, not the tops of their tickets. Voters vote for president, not vice president. And despite the history of memorable zingers in veep debates – see Democrat Lloyd Bentsen telling Republican Dan Quayle in 1988, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” – these showdowns of No. 2’s have no history of swinging a presidential race.

As such, Thursday night’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan almost certainly won’t directly affect the outcome of the race. But after last week’s first presidential debate, in which President Obama was widely perceived to have delivered a subpar performance, the heat is on Mr. Biden to halt the Romney-Ryan ticket’s momentum.

The latest poll average on Real Clear Politics shows GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney now ahead of President Obama by 0.8 percentage points – well within the margin of error, but still a significant reversal from Mr. Obama’s 4.3 percent lead on Sept. 29. By the Oct. 3 debate, Obama’s lead had already begun narrowing, and the Obama campaign insists the race was always going to be close, but there’s no denying that Biden is under pressure to perform well Thursday.

“It will be a setup for the next presidential debate,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “Biden needs to lay out the specifics of where Romney-Ryan goes wrong, and where they [Obama-Biden] go right.”

Biden will need to go on the offensive, Mr. Fenn says, not just in style but also "in substance and in clarity with the difference in their two positions.”

One flashpoint is likely to be Medicare – the national health insurance program for seniors that is the largest contributor to long-term federal deficits. Congressman Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is author of a plan that would change Medicare from a fee-for-service setup to a system of “premium support.” Biden calls it a plan to “voucherize” Medicare, forcing seniors over time to pay a growing share of their health-care costs out of pocket.

The Romney plan, a different version of Ryan’s, also moves Medicare to “premium support,” but Mr. Romney and Ryan maintain that by encouraging more private-sector competition among insurance plans, the costs would come down. They would also add means testing, providing less support to wealthier seniors and more to the less wealthy.

If Biden is clever, he can tie Ryan down on the details, at times vague, of the Romney-Ryan plan. In return, watch for Ryan’s mastery of all things budgetary and his skill on the stump in talking through budget matters in an accessible way. Ryan is sure to bring his Medicare-recipient mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, into the discussion, as a living, breathing example of why he wants to save Medicare, not destroy it, as the Democrats say the Romney-Ryan plan would end up doing.

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.

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.

Michael Munger, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says history shows that vice presidential debates don’t matter. But he doesn’t rule out that this one could.  

“In a close race, everything matters,” he says.

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