Will the Veep Debate Become an Ugly Partisan Wrestling Match?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 11 2012 12:59 PM

Sir Gaffe-a-Lot vs. Lyin’ Ryan

Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are capable of having an intelligent debate—or an ugly partisan wrestling match.

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Paul Ryan, right
Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Paul Ryan, right

Photographs by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Joe Biden has said that the hardest thing about becoming a vice presidential candidate was that he had to learn how to speak for someone else. It’s been pretty hard on Barack Obama, too—because sometimes it seems Biden is speaking for Mitt Romney. From his comments about chaining black voters to his suggestion that the middle class has been “buried,” Biden has helped the Romney camp enough that he at least deserves a Romney-Ryan campaign fleece.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Paul Ryan has had an easier time sublimating himself to his boss’s agenda. Though he is new to the crucible of a national campaign, he has not caused Romney a single headache. When his positions have come into conflict with Romney's on the hot-button issues of Social Security, Medicare, and abortion, Ryan has fallen in line. He has made the transition from policy wonk to attack dog nicely, as demonstrated by his speech at the Republican National Convention. He has only one more hurdle left, and if he clears it Thursday night, he will either be the vice president or the front-runner in 2016.

Most of us who follow politics say the vice presidential debate is meaningless. Voters base their votes on the name at the top of the campaign sign. That is true. But in this campaign, where merely the clumsy repetition of a months-old talking point can control a few news cycles, surely the debate performance of the fellow who is one heartbeat away from the presidency has the potential to shake things up. If nothing else, the debate will provide us with language and moments to discuss the existing themes of this election.

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Here's how either Ryan or Biden may affect the race (and thereby gain a place in vice presidential debate history): if they commit a confirming blunder. What is this particular species of gaffe? In the veep debate, I’d define it as a statement or action that underlines the most negative stereotype about the top candidate.

Of course, we have been told that this campaign is rife with blunders, gaffes, and missteps. So what is not a confirming blunder? Big Bird, for starters. In the first debate, Mitt Romney made a joke that Big Bird would lose federal funding if Romney becomes president. President Obama says Romney’s priorities are misplaced. He doesn’t care about hurting kids, and the amount he would save by firing Big Bird is minuscule—which really goes to show you how much he is not telling us about what he plans to cut. Romney uses Big Bird on the stump, too. The president wants to protect Big Bird, he says; I want to protect American families. The tweet-a-tweet over the Sesame Street character confirms nothing but the pre-existing views of both sides.

A confirming blunder is one a campaign can’t battle back from so easily. A good example was Romney’s secretly videotaped comments about the layabouts, chiselers, and moochers in the 47 percent voting for Obama. It underlined the narrative that he doesn’t care about half the country. For Obama, the confirming blunder was his “You didn’t build that” remarks, which cast small business owners as uppity entrepreneurs who thought too much of their own achievements.

In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, the storylines are clear. The Romney team had hoped to paint President Obama as tired and out of ideas. Focus groups conducted for the Romney campaign show that those who voted for Obama in 2008 but are disappointed in his performance are worried that he’s out of ideas. (Focus groups run by the conservative group Crossroads GPS detects the same thing, which is why their new anti-Obama ad is titled “Out of ideas.”) In the debate, Obama not only fit that mold with his responses, he underlined it with his listless demeanor. It's a special achievement when the messenger can also be the message. If Biden reinforces the limited, earthbound and listless image of the administration, it will be remembered.

Romney emerged from the first debate with plaudits but also questions. He emphasized the moderate tenets of his views on education, Medicare, and tax cuts. The Obama team is arguing that the man who once described himself as “severely conservative” is trying to hide his true colors to woo enough undecided voters to his side. They argue his core is still “severely conservative.” (Never mind that they once said he doesn’t have a core.)

How will the vice presidential candidates confirm these storylines? That’s the fun of watching. A simple Bidenism won’t do it alone—the market has already discounted for that—but then again that market discount may be the problem. People are used to the Biden gaffes, which means they may also be tired of them. If Biden conforms to his own stereotype—loquacious and off point—it may reinforce the notion that the campaign is tired and out of ideas more than anything else.

Ryan is the embodiment of Romney’s conservatism. Ryan actually is severely conservative—he was a member of the GOP’s Young Guns in the House—an aggressive group of no-compromise conservatives. Right now Romney is boasting about working with Democrats (swing voting women like that) and emphasizing the moderate aspects of his conservatism. Ryan doesn’t fit that mold and might find it hard to know exactly what to emphasize to stay in line with the nuances of his boss. A slip up could bolster the Obama argument that this team is not being honest.

Republicans don’t just laugh at Biden's blunders. They say it makes him unfit. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the vice president is mentally unstable. Democrats claim Ryan bends the truth. Biden's flaw is that he lets the truth slip unintentionally. Ryan never lets a truth slip—intentionally. This battle of two different philosophies, by two intelligent men from different generations could touch on a host of serious themes. That is, if these two partisan storylines don’t overtake things and make the undercard sound more like a World Wrestling match: Sir Gaffe-a-Lot vs. Lyin’ Ryan.

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