When Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in their first presidential debate last week, and by common consent that’s what happened, he raised the pressure on Joe Biden to even the score in the vice presidential debate today.
Biden will have a tough time doing that. Even though Republicans will be trying to lower expectations for their candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, everyone knows he is a formidable and unflappable debater. He knows the ins and outs of domestic policy at least as well as Biden, and speaks more authoritatively about them. Ryan also has spent more elections having to win voters outside his party. What’s more, Biden has some predilections that will make his own job harder.
The vice president seems to believe that he has some special gift for connecting with middle-class voters. This may lead to overconfidence. Ryan has been at least as effective as Biden in making a blue-collar case for his party’s ideas.
Similarly, Biden has a reputation for his foreign-policy expertise, and Ryan has little experience in this area, so the vice president may be tempted to try to show up the younger man. It could backfire, though, since Biden’s reputation is largely undeserved. His record on Iraq – opposing the first war in the early 1990s, supporting the second one, opposing the surge and uniting Iraq’s factions against him by proposing to split the country in three – doesn’t seem like an advertisement for his great judgment. Agree with Ryan or not on foreign policy, he is fluent on it even if it hasn’t been the focus of his career.
The Democratic reaction to Obama’s debate loss also may point Biden in the wrong direction. Among liberals the prevailing view is that Obama lost because he didn’t call Romney on his outrageous lies, and especially because he didn’t draw a stark contrast on Medicare and Social Security. Obama even said the two candidates had a “similar position” on the second program. Democrats will be urging Biden to be more combative.
The vice president isn’t above demagogic attacks: In his convention speech, he claimed “experts” had said that one of Romney’s tax proposals would create 800,000 jobs, “all of them overseas, all of them.” In fact, Biden was referring to a study by one expert, and it didn’t say what he claimed: It estimated 800,000 jobs would be created overseas, but it didn’t examine the impact domestically.
A few things may work in Biden’s favor. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business (and an Obama supporter), points out that liberals are more apt to hold inaccurate stereotypes about conservatives’ values than vice versa. Perhaps this lack of familiarity with the conservative worldview made Obama less prepared for the debate than Romney was: Obama didn’t know what to say when a Republican made an argument that differed from the straw men the president loves to create. Maybe Biden – who has built closer working relationships with conservatives in the Senate than Obama ever has – will be prepared with more effective rebuttals.
Democrats also probably don’t need to worry about Biden’s penchant for gaffes. Yes, he said last week that the middle class “has been buried the last four years,” which is maybe not the ideal message for a ticket asking for four more. He also has a history of making racially insensitive remarks – about Indian-Americans as 7-Eleven owners and Obama as “clean” and “articulate.” As Ryan has pointed out, though, Biden typically makes such blunders when he is relaxed rather than in high-pressure situations, such as nationally watched debates.
Biden gave a stronger, more tightly focused speech at the Democratic convention than Obama did. He will have to do better than Obama again this week. The race is a dead heat, according to most recent polls. So the stakes are higher than they usually are in vice presidential debates. It’s safe to say that Republicans are looking forward to this one more than Democrats are.
• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.