Today’s vice presidential debate makes us glad of one thing. The phony, irritating, made-for-Twitter era pre-fight “expectation-setting” is over. Republicans won’t even pretend that Joe Biden’s synapses still crackle. On Wednesday, after a modest amount of Internet buzz over a Ryan interview that ended poorly, the Romney campaign compared Ryan’s local TV schedule with Biden’s failure to do any national TV hits since he endorsed gay marriage back in May. The Weekly Standard gave anonymity to a “Republican source,” who gloated that “Joe Biden gets used by the Obama Campaign like Bernie from ‘Weekend at Bernie's.’ ”
If Romney-Ryan tried to praise the veep, who would believe them? The three funniest syllables in any GOP stump speech are “Joe Biden.” The titters start at the mention of his name; they continue as some Republican quotes his latest “gaffe.” Back in the summer, American Crossroads blew some of its bottomless cash reserves on a Web video compilation of Biden missteps, thanking Obama for keeping Biden on the ticket. (The idea that Biden wouldn’t be on the ticket was a classic, baseless August political story.)
According to Pew, only 34 percent of people expect Biden to beat Paul Ryan tonight, even though they barely know who Ryan is. Only 39 percent of these voters actually like the president. I’m not even sure that the “Bernie” joke is wrong. When I last asked the Obama campaign for Biden access, I was told that the veep’s plane was small and filled—literally, man—with traveling press.
So Biden enters the ring underrated, and Ryan enters it as a mystery. That’s obviously good for Biden. Ryan has outmatched mostly hapless Democrats in the eight debates he has competed in for his thoroughly safe House seat. Biden has lost two presidential primaries—one gracefully, one with maximum pain and humiliation—and coasted through some debates for his U.S. Senate seat. After spending some time with the Biden tapes, I’m convinced he’s being undervalued. He has a skill that now evades Barack Obama. He comes off like he actually cares about politics and wants to keep his job.
And he’s gotten much better with time. The first televised Biden debates, the ones that nearly ended his career, date from 1987. He was 44. His hairline had not yet been corrected by scientists. On May 8, Sen. Gary Hart quit the race. On June 9, Biden jumped into it, filling the white-guy charisma gap in a field that included Michael Dukakis, Bruce Babbitt, Dick Gephardt, and Al Gore. (I say “white guy” because Jesse Jackson had more charisma than all of these guys put together and multiplied by the factor of Newt.)
This Biden is barely recognizable to the modern audience. His voice was higher than it is now, which made him sound meaner. His first national “gaffe” of consequence came when a possible supporter asked about his law school credentials. “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you, I suspect,” snapped Biden, raising his hand to his head, as if he’d tattooed the number up there. The debate that killed his campaign was actually a low-key forum on farm issues, where Biden repeatedly insisted that “statistics” didn’t convey how bad things were, and that as president he’d “re-establish a sense of community and one-ness.” It was at the end of his debate that Biden accidentally failed to credit Neil Kinnock, the golden-throat British Labour Party leader, for a riff about why he’d succeeded beyond the ambitions of his ancestors. But he really did dress that up in lace. The borrowed line became something that Biden “started thinkin’ on the way over here.”