A veep debate that could really matter
Vice presidential debates typically matter as much as vice presidential picks -- which is to say not a lot -- but a convergence of factors is raising the stakes on this week's faceoff between Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden.
Looming most heavy over the clash in Kentucky is President Barack Obama's remarkably weak debate performance last week, a showing that has given Republicans their first sense of hope in weeks and increased the pressure on Biden to get Democrats back on course.
Obama's Denver dud, and specifically his refusal to go after Mitt Romney on some of the GOP nominee's most glaring vulnerabilities, has officials in both parties anticipating an aggressive, hard-hitting Biden showing up to try to put Democrats back on the offensive.
If "Gentleman Joe" took the stage four years ago, determined not to come off as patronizing or bullying Sarah Palin, it seems almost certain that Thursday will bring the appearance of "Scranton Joe," the scrappy pol who's never been afraid to throw a punch.
"There's no sympathetic character up there with him this time," said Steve Schmidt, who helped prep Palin four years ago for her Biden debate. "So he'll be bringing his proverbial nunchucks and brass knuckles."
Biden aides don't exactly deny that their guy will come out swinging.
"Romney and Ryan offer a multitude of opportunities for us to show the contrast between our middle-class agenda and their plan to repeat the mistakes that got us into this mess in the first place," said one Biden official.
The circumstances around the face-off this week at Centre College actually most resemble not 2008 but 2004: The incumbent president flops in his first debate, forcing his older and more seasoned vice president to take it to a younger foe.
While Dick Cheney memorably scorched John Edwards on the former North Carolina senator's congressional attendance record, Democratic veterans expect Biden to go after the GOP ticket specifically on those issues that Obama handled weakly or entirely failed to raise last week: Romney's "47 percent" comment, his opposition to the auto bailout and Ryan's proposal to move Social Security toward the free market.
"They'll read the [Denver] transcript very, very carefully to look for lost opportunities," said one Democratic insider who has worked in past debate prep sessions but isn't involved this year. "They'll have a list of the missed opportunities."
Beyond the implications of last week's showdown, the mere fact that Romney selected Ryan as his running mate also increases the significance of the one vice presidential debate.
That's because this is the rare presidential year in which, from a policy standpoint, one side is running as much against the other's veep pick as they are the presidential nominee. Ryan is the architect of the controversial budget plan that would offer younger voters the option of taking a voucher in place of traditional Medicare coverage. He was also among the biggest advocates in the Bush years of letting taxpayers put part of their Social Security in private accounts and had the privatization plan in his original fiscal "roadmap."
Obama's high command knows the president missed a chance by not pressing Social Security against Romney and almost certainly will insist Biden raise the popular program with Ryan.
Obama officials, refusing to discuss their thinking on the record, believe Ryan is far more committed to his philosophical conservatism than Romney and therefore will be less comfortable with the rhetorical feints toward the middle deployed last week by the GOP presidential nominee.
"Congressman Ryan ... has a choice to make Thursday: either stand by the extreme positions he's been the face of for years -- and that Governor Romney has fully embraced -- like turning Medicare into a voucher program and cutting taxes for the wealthiest few at the expense of the middle class, or flat-out deny their existence as Governor Romney did in last week's debate," said a second Biden official.
Biden also will seize any opportunity to highlight Ryan's views on Medicare and Social Security as real or perceived space between the Republican ticket mates.
"He needs to stay on offense," said GOP strategist Tucker Eskew of how Ryan can push back against the coming assault. "The Biden record of statements and votes is replete with opportunities for Ryan to draw distinctions between Biden's words and Obama's actions."
Ryan officials, also speaking only without attribution, know they're going to face heavy incoming and are counseling the wonky House Budget Committee chairman to stick to the big picture.
"This isn't a Budget Committee hearing," said one Ryan adviser.
"He knows his job is to show a clear choice between our message of pro-growth and more jobs and a future of more debt and decline," added another Ryan source.
That's another way of saying they don't want Ryan to get into a discussion about the role of government or anything that veers toward "the makers vs. the takers" trope that has become fashionable in some conservative circles and led to Romney's riff on Americans who don't pay income taxes.
Chicago, of course, would love to draw Ryan into a conversation on the topic.
"How's he going to explain this?" asked one senior Obama official, pointing to a clip on the Huffington Post last week of Ryan from 2010 saying "we're going to a majority of takers versus makers in America and that will be tough to come back from that."
To prepare for Biden, Ryan has sequestered himself at the Wintergreen Resort, just south of Charlottesville, Va., spending early mornings mountain biking before a long day of mock debates, video review and reading that goes on after dinner. Ryan has watched Biden's 2008 debate with Palin as well as other clips of the vice president's speeches, including a foreign policy address he gave this past spring in New York City. Ryan advisers have dug even deeper, watching many of Biden's 2008 Democratic primary debates.
Attempting to build up Biden, one Ryan official said the vice president's reputation as "this gaffe machine" was at odds with the veteran politician who appears in many of those forums from 2007.
"If you read David Plouffe's book, one of the reasons he was picked was because he did well in the debates," said a Ryan adviser.
Ryan's sparring partner, Republican superlawyer Ted Olson, has taken to his role with relish, say GOP officials, imitating Biden's unique mannerisms and signature rhetorical techniques.
"[Romney mock debate opponent Rob] Portman prosecutes an argument but doesn't play the part," said a Ryan official. "Ted plays the part."
Biden, for his part, did a few practice rounds with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ryan's stand-in and the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, in September and the Marylander will join Team Biden for more sessions this week in Delaware.
The vice president's team has been reviewing Ryan's convention speech and some of his Sunday show appearances in recent months.
Finally, the reputations of the two men who will square off makes Thursday more significant than a typical vice presidential debate.
A damaging Biden gaffe that becomes "the story" of the debate would compound the Democrats' difficulties or at least delay their effort to move on from Obama's poor performance.
"When he is all guns blazing he tends to misfire," said Tracey Schmitt, a Republican campaign veteran.
Ryan's reputation as a master explainer also ups the ante. The one lingering item of promise from an otherwise dismal debate for Democrats was on the question of Romney's "math" -- that is, how his tax and spending plans would add up.
Romney distanced himself from his proposal to give an across-the-board tax cut, saying that because of unspecified changes to deductions and exemptions the wealthy wouldn't see a reduction in their tax bill.
Ryan will face pressure to say exactly how he and Romney would implement their plan without adding to the deficit, something he will be tempted to litigate in such a long-form setting.
But Ryan officials want him to stick with the Romney approach of downplaying the rate reduction and focusing instead on broader ideas about reviving the economy.
"He did it perfectly," said a Ryan aide of Romney's answers on his fiscal plan.