Opinion by Andy Hume
Vice-presidential debates typically don’t matter very much in the scheme of things, but Thursday’s match-up between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden is attracting an unusual amount of attention, and it is sure to be a fascinating clash of styles in a number of ways. Both candidates will be under significant pressure to perform well, but for differing reasons.
Vice President Biden is tasked with putting the Democrats’ campaign back on track after their calamitous first debate, which the panel of experts at Election Debates awarded to Mitt Romney by a vote of 5-1 and which has universally been judged to be the poorest debate showing of Obama’s career. Unfortunately, Biden has a longstanding reputation for making gaffes on the campaign trail, and is often accused of being overly loquacious – in plain English, of being a blowhard. It should be said that this perception is not entirely accurate – as his disciplined and effective performance in the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate demonstrated. The VP needs to ensure that he does not go off-message too far; as with Romney last week, the most dangerous moments will be those where Biden strays from the agreed, prepared answers he has worked out in debate prep.
He will also need to ensure that he does not come across as condescending towards his challenger, nearly thirty years his junior. After Obama’s baffling failure to go after Romney on the many weaknesses and inconsistencies in the Republican campaign platform, Biden needs to get onto the front foot rather than playing defensively. But while Democratic activists and supporters would relish the prospect of his humiliating Paul Ryan, undecided voters will want to see the younger man rebutted on the facts rather than belittled for his “youth and inexperience”. Finally, he should avoid getting dragged into dry or overly technical arguments with the other man. Ryan is widely agreed to be strong on detail, but while there is much in his record of policy advocacy to attack, particularly as chairman of the Congressional Budget Committee, audiences will quickly turn off if the two men start squabbling over figures.
However, Biden is also a seasoned and senior politician of many years’ standing. He was instrumental in derailing the nomination of the Reagan appointee Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, despite the implosion of his own Presidential campaign during the confirmation hearings. And four years ago he was able to ride out a potentially tricky debate against Sarah Palin and emerge as a relatively comfortable winner. He has a strong command of policy but, crucially, has the priceless political ability of being able to render complex ideas in simple form; in contrast to his general speechmaking style, his debate answers are usually tightly structured and well organized, quickly getting to the heart of the question and crystallising the points of clash between the two candidates. Alongside this is a personal warmth and avuncular charm which seems to play well with audiences; compared to Obama (or, indeed, to Romney), Biden comes off as likeable and human. Barring a high-profile calamity, it is hard to see him turning in as poor a performance as his boss did last week.
Biden’s challenge on Thursday will be to press these qualities home against a more formidable opponent than he faced four years ago. Paul Ryan is unlikely to indulge in too many knowing winks to camera, or confuse North and South Korea. Like the Vice President, he is known for his commanding grasp of policy, particularly on economic matters, but like Biden he has developed a reputation for communicating complicated ideas in a straightforward and persuasive way. His manner is likely to be confident and his answers clear, concise and well organized. He also has a track record of taking the debate to his opponents and this is likely to be an advantage in this clash. On a more basic level, Americans still don’t know that much about a man who is reputed to be one of the rising stars of his party, and they’ll be paying close attention to what he has to say.
But Ryan, too, has his weaknesses. For a man with a reputation of being strong on policy he can sometimes come across as hazy on the details, particularly in areas where the Republican campaign has been deliberately vague. Criticising the administration’s record will be easy enough, but the Romney camp has often been studiously non-committal about what it would have done differently. If Ryan’s image as an intellectual policy wonk can be eroded by Biden, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania writes, then it would “dislodge the dominant narrative” about the GOP challenger.
More fundamentally, Biden will be looking to exploit contradictions between the stated policies of the Romney-Ryan ticket and the more “ideological” positions that have been espoused by the Wisconsin congressman in the past. Polls suggest that Ryan’s policy prescriptions for rethinking the size and scope of the federal government are too rich for most Americans’ blood, and the Romney campaign has downplayed them and to some extent, in recent weeks, sidelined Ryan. Biden will be looking to point out the inconsistencies between the two men and portray his opponent as a rigid right-wing ideologue. Ryan needs to have answers ready for the most obvious attack lines and sidestep Biden’s charges as elegantly as possible.
Finally, Ryan needs to beware of unrealistically high expectations. After last week’s triumph, some Republicans are predicting that he will “wipe the floor” with the Vice President. This is a very dangerous position to be in and he will need to rise to at least some of that hype if he’s not to be considered to have flopped, however unfair that may be.
Thursday’s debate promises to be a fascinating clash of styles between two very different men. It’s very hard to predict exactly what will happen, and we await it eagerly at Election Debates.
Andy Hume is a former World Debating Champion. Currently Andy is based in South Korea and is a professional debate coach and trainer.