Commentary Magazine


The Battle of the Debate Prep Surrogates

If we can get any indication on the tone of tonight’s debate from Paul Ryan and Joe Biden’s chosen debate preparation opponents, it will be two things: wonky and heated.

Biden’s team has tapped Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a strong opponent of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Van Hollen’s participation in Biden’s debate prep shows just how seriously the vice president is taking Ryan’s plan, and just how badly the Obama campaign wants to put the Romney camp on the defensive tonight. In advance of tonight’s debate the Obama campaign has released a new ad featuring Van Hollen; The Hill reports on its contents:

Ryan “will either have to stand by the extreme positions he and (Republican nominee Mitt Romney) hold, like turning Medicare into a voucher program that ends the program’s guarantee to seniors, or he will have to flat out deny their existence, as Gov. Romney did in last week’s debate, when he denied the plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest few at the expense of the middle class, a plan they have touted for months,” Van Hollen said in the ad.

During Van Hollen’s speech at the DNC last month, fear-mongering on Ryan’s plan and Bush-blaming were the focal points. He stated,

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s obsession with tax breaks for the wealthy is part of a rigid ideology. Give people like Mitt Romney a break, and hope something will trickle down and lift others up. But this theory crashed in the real world. We all lived through the recession when jobs went down and the deficit went up. So when they say they’ll turn around the economy, beware. They mean a U-turn back to this failed theory that lifted the yachts while other boats ran aground.

What does Obama expect of Biden’s debate style? CBS News reported last night,

In an interview with radio host Tom Joyner today, President Obama described himself as “too polite” in his debate, but predicted a strong performance from the Vice President. “Biden, I think, will be terrific in the debate this week,” he said

In stark contrast to the partisan rhetoric of Van Hollen, Paul Ryan’s chosen debate opponent, former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson is a calm, experienced and successful litigator who successfully argued the Bush v. Gore case before the Supreme Court in the aftermath of the 2000 election.

If we can gain any insight from this Obama interview and Van Hollen’s aggressive attacks on Ryan’s budget plan over the past four weeks, we’re likely to see Biden coming out swinging hard against Ryan’s economic proposals tonight in Kentucky. We’ve yet to see many examples of Ryan’s debating style, but given his choice of Olson as a sparring and debate preparation partner, it’s likely we’ll see Ryan try to remain calm, cool and on message. We’ll see in a few hours how Americans respond to an aggressive sitting vice president as he spars with a well-informed and level-headed opponent, but if Biden attacks too forcefully, he could come off worse than President Obama’s meek performance last week.