Among the chatter heading into tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and current Vice President Joe Biden, it’s easy to pick up on the confidence conservatives have in Ryan and their dismissive attitude toward Biden. Both of those are well founded, since Ryan is a solid debater and in strong command of the facts, while Biden is … Biden. Furthermore, they seem to be making a kind of Talmudic a fortiori argument about the general momentum of the campaigns: if Mitt Romney could so thoroughly defeat Barack Obama, kal v’chomer Paul Ryan could dismantle Joe Biden.
But there are three things conservatives should keep in mind. First, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden was better than Obama was—and it wasn’t even close. Biden had the energy and the populist appeal—two staples of his political persona—while Obama was saddled with presidential exhaustion and a marked lack of ideas or inspirational rhetoric. Biden is the one candidate among the four who is capable of projecting warmth on command. If the Joe Biden from the DNC shows up tomorrow night, Ryan will have his work cut out for him.
Second, the lead-up to the first presidential debate was filled with reminders of the memorable moments of debates past. What did they generally have in common? They often had nothing to do with the substance of the arguments, but rather with nonverbal cues. Al Gore’s sigh; George H.W. Bush looking at his watch; George W. Bush’s brilliant but almost imperceptible nod at Gore when Gore tried to crowd him. And even when the moments were about the words spoken, what were they? “You’re no Jack Kennedy”; “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”; and so on.
This is not to discount completely the role of substance. In fact, the first Romney-Obama debate was widely viewed as being more substantive than many previous debates, low on zingers and high on numbers, and this perception contributed to Romney’s margin of victory. Ryan will most certainly have substance on his side, and it will be of service. But the fact that one statement, let alone an audible exhalation, can rule the memory of these debates should be a warning to Ryan that debate performances are performances, sometimes above all else.
Third, Ryan may be taken aback by the extent to which Biden will invent alternate history and present it as fact. In 2008, Biden did exactly that, at one point offering a response on Lebanon that was quite possibly the most ridiculous statement ever made at a vice presidential debate. (If you need your memory jogged about it, please re-read Michael Totten’s post about it on this site.)
Biden gets a free pass—that’s the rule. In 2008, neither the moderator nor Sarah Palin called Biden on his repeated factually challenged ramblings. If Biden is not forced to work within observable reality, the debate will be conducted on his terms. Biden has been wrong on pretty much every major foreign-policy question in his time in the Senate, but foreign policy is not Ryan’s bread and butter. Will he be prepared enough to correct the record each time Biden wanders off?
On paper, the smart money would always be on a candidate like Ryan against someone like Biden. But the superior candidates have lost countless such debates over the years, for a variety of reasons. And overconfidence is often at the top of that list.