First, it would conform to a traditional function of vice presidents and vice-presidential candidates, who often operate as “hatchet men” and savage the opposition while their senior partners remain above the fray to preserve their nice-guy reputations. Richard Nixon performed such service for Dwight Eisenhower, as did Spiro Agnew for Nixon and Bob Dole when chosen as running mate for the unsuccessful ’76 campaign of Gerald Ford. Nobody cares if a veep contender comes across as particularly likable: Dick Cheney helped George W. Bush win two difficult campaigns, but he won few points for his warm, fuzzy, cuddly presentations.
Moreover, if Biden comes into the debate with an angry assault on “Mitt the Twit”—the arrogant, Richie Rich, flip-flopping opportunist who made his pile by sending American jobs overseas and feels only contempt for 47 percent of Americans he dismisses as “victims,” the vice president could force Paul Ryan into an intensely uncomfortable position.
If Ryan tries to defend the GOP nominee, he risks looking apologetic and even evasive, raising questions about why Romney hasn’t been more effective and definitive in defending himself. If, on the other hand, Ryan tells Biden that he’s not there to talk about Mitt’s personality or business history but prefers to discuss the pressing issues (where Ryan’s experience and intelligence could trump Biden’s), it looks as if he’s dodging a fight and refusing to answer ugly charges against Romney because there’s no easy way to answer them.
Either way, it takes the focus away from Ryan—who remains something of an impressive but imprecise blur in the public mind—and it pushes the Romney-Ryan ticket into an awkward defensive posture.
Had Obama launched such nasty attacks with Romney himself standing just a few feet from him, it could have offended many observers as “unpresidential,” but since the vice-president position has traditionally been viewed as something of a joke, no holder of that less-than-august office need worry about acting “un–vice presidential.”
Two-term veep John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner famously said the vice presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit,” though his actual quote (before historical cleanup) actually referenced urine rather than saliva.
With that in mind, it could make some sense for Biden to hurl that bucket of liquid waste at the currently surging opposition and to risk everything with an obnoxious, let-’er-rip assault. Since both Joltin’ Joe and the office he holds have already become punchlines, he may decide that he might as well throw a few real punches.