DANVILLE, KY - Ever since Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate in August, many conservatives have been breathlessly awaiting this moment: The Ryan/Biden debate. Ryan is known as a consummate explainer, a data-driven budget expert, and a stickler for details. Joe Biden is known as...none of those things. What can we expect to see during tonight's one-and-only Vice Presidential debate? I addressed that question on Fox News recently, and my analysis may surprise you:
The Vice President has been the butt of nearly every joke aimed at the Obama administration since the moment they were sworn in. He's the crazy old uncle who says nutty things at Christmas dinner, but we laugh along with him because of that big grin of his. How often we forget that this man is actually a heartbeat away from the presidency. Biden has certainly contributed to his reputation by uncorking an endless parade of gaffes, from the unamusing ("back in chains") to the hilariously frivolous ("Stand up, Chuck!"). His favorability is fairly low, his expectations may be even lower. This plays to his advantage, particularly in light of the president's virtual no-show in Denver. If Biden warms to his task tonight and puts together a forceful -- if not entirely factual -- performance, the media is more than eager to declare it a momentum-shifter. Because Paul Ryan is so well known and highly regarded within high-level political circles, his bar will be higher than usual for a relative newcomer to the national stage, at least among the chattering class. A few more considerations heading into the evening:
(1) Joe Biden has been cloistered in debate preparation for six full days, and you'd better believe he's studied hard. He's less intelligent than Ryan, and he's definitely feeling some pressure post-Denver. As I mentioned in the clip, Rep. Chris Van Hollen is a sharp guy, and knows Paul Ryan well, so I bet his help has been invaluable. For his part, Biden sounds loaded for bear, suggesting that he won't pull punches during the exchange.
(2) Tonight will mark the 18th Presidential or Vice Presidential debate of Joe Biden's decades-long career, not to mention many other US Senate debates. It will be Paul Ryan's first.
(3) ABC News' Martha Raddatz will moderate the affair. Here's a fact that was undisclosed until yesterday, when the Daily Caller dug it up: Barack Obama attended Raddatz's wedding in the 1990's, at which she married Julius Genachoswki, who is now the Left-wing, Obama-appointed head of the FCC. Genachowski was a guest at the Obamas' wedding as well. ABC News and the Commission on Presidential Debates deny that there's any conflict of interest at play, but these facts at least seem somewhat relevant, no? It's also worth noting that Raddatz' is a top foreign correspondent for ABC, suggesting that the debate may focus heavily on international affairs. I have no doubt that Paul Ryan will be well briefed on these issues (he's traveled abroad with Congressional delegations on numerous occasions), but everyone knows that the economy and the budget are his bread and butter. Don't be at all surprised if a great deal of time is spent on foreign policy, social issues, and process questions. Just a hunch.
(4) According to National Review's Robert Costa, Paul Ryan's mantra has been "prepare, prepare, prepare." Costa's piece on Ryan's debate preparations is worth a full read, but here's a taste:
For much of last week, Ryan was at Wintergreen, a sprawling resort in central Virginia. Under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ryan and his advisers quietly reviewed policy papers, held several mock debates, and kept distractions to a minimum. BlackBerries and iPhones were switched off, and Ryan avoided the traveling press. Yet the Virginia sessions were not the beginning of Ryan’s prep for Thursday’s debate. Soon after the Tampa convention, Ryan convened his inner circle, which includes longtime aides such as Andy Speth and Romney hands such as Dan Senor, and asked them to compile briefing books, much like the binders he used to organize for Kemp. On the campaign plane and at his home in Janesville, Wis., Ryan has been constantly reading the policy books, using his favorite disposable blue pen to make changes. By mid-September, Ryan had two large books with him at all times. One was for domestic policy and the other for foreign policy. Romney’s policy staff in Boston was helpful in providing information about Romney’s positions, but Ryan took it upon himself to write much of the analysis and talking points.
Paul Ryan is bright and capable. He'll be ready for tonight's tilt. Joe Biden is unpredictable, which makes him difficult to prepare for. I thought Biden exceeded expectations with his speech at the DNC, and given the public's perception of him, could do so again this evening. His danger zone is if he loses his tempter or gets overwhelmed by the fire in his belly to the point that his wits can't keep up. This isn't an uncommon occurrence. The stakes of this exchange are significantly lower than last week's. Ryan's aim is to stay in command of facts, not allow himself to get chased down rabbit trails, and to assert his knowledge on a range of issues. He needs to be confident, calm and plausible as Vice President; he doesn't need a knock-out. I also suspect far fewer people will watch this debate than the unprecedented audience that tuned in for Sarah Palin in 2008. I'd bet the curiosity factor is down, plus this programming is up against baseball playoffs and NFL football. We shall see. Kickoff is at 9 pm ET, airing on every major news and broadcast network.
UPDATE - Politico reports that both campaigns expect a "very aggressive" debate tonight. This might hurt Biden, who tends to go off the rails when the blood rushes to his head. Then again, I'm concerned about the meat of the story, which makes it sound as if Biden's going to try to stay on relentless offense, while Ryan's prepared to play specific and detailed defense. Strong rebuttals and defenses are important, but shouldn't the incumbent ticket with the bad record be the ones trying to defend and explain?