When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate in August, Republicans spoke about how they couldn’t wait to see the Wisconsin congressman take apart Vice President Biden. But two months later, the stakes in that anticipated match-up are turning out to be far higher than anyone thought. After Mitt Romney’s smashing victory over President Obama last week in the first presidential debate, rather than just being a test of the strengths of the lower halves of each ticket, the vice presidential debate is now seen as a crucial second round that could help shape the rest of the race.
That sounds like an inviting opportunity for conservatives who could be said to have fished their wish when Ryan was put on the ticket. Ryan is the intellectual leader of his party as well as its most prominent advocate of entitlement reform and has long been seen as one of the brightest young stars in the GOP. He is an experienced Washington debater in the House as well as in other forums, such as his highly publicized confrontation with President Obama during a 2010 White House health care summit. But tonight’s encounter is a very different kind of animal. While Biden’s weaknesses and strengths are well known, the pressure is on Ryan to show that he belongs on the biggest political stage. If he fails, it could be a body blow to Republicans who in the last week have begun to feel as if victory in November is within their reach.
Given his high profile in Washington for a member of the House of Representatives and his reputation as one of his party’s leading talking heads, it seems absurd to think of Ryan as an unknown factor in the veep debate. But the truth is, he has never been in this kind of situation before: head-to-head with a competitor, with the entire nation watching. His ability to deal with this sort of pressure and to deploy his considerable body of knowledge in such a way as to impress upon the public his seriousness and competence is the X factor.
Democrats may be counting on Biden to retrieve what the president lost last week, but the odds are that he is going into the debate feeling cocky rather than pressured. Biden’s high opinion of himself is legendary in Washington. It’s likely Biden will come out swinging at Ryan both because Democrats think Obama was too passive against Romney and also because he believes Ryan is vulnerable as the author of a controversial budget proposal that Romney has not completely embraced.
That means Ryan will have to keep his cool and respond like the wonk he is with logic, facts and figures, as well as a compelling defense of the philosophy of limited government and individual freedom that he has long championed.
That ought to be right in his wheelhouse, but Ryan has very little margin for error. A hostile press will jump on any hesitation, let alone a mistake on his part. If he falters, it will sink not only him but also Republican hopes, since you can take it for granted that any gaffe on his part will become the main story of the debate no matter what blunders Biden commits.
Despite efforts by liberals to treat him as a wise statesman, such as this fawning piece by James Traub in Foreign Policy, the country already knows Biden is a pompous fool. He will play the foreign policy expert even though he has been wrong about virtually every big question his whole career and has been defeated in every policy battle within the administration. But he is also an experienced and articulate political fighter who can hold his own on the stump and in debates.
Biden will hit Ryan hard about entitlement reform as well as foreign policy. He will attempt to portray him as the man in the Democrat ads pushing granny off the cliff. Ryan may be used to this, but most of the country has yet to see him in this sort of tussle. Debunking the liberal narrative is his specialty, but what we will find out is whether he can do so now when the pressure is greatest and the stakes are as high as they possibly can be. If Ryan weathers this storm with good humor and sharp replies, he will move his party one step closer to victory as well as to solidify his standing as the future of the GOP. But the pressure is on him to prove that he can do it. Stay tuned.