RSS
6 ways Joe Biden can win the VP debate
That Obama's electoral hopes might rest on Biden's verbal skills seems like Christmas for the GOP. Here, a few ways the vice president could turn the tables
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event on Sept. 7 in Portsmouth, N.H.: Biden might be able to outdo Paul Ryan if he calls the congressman out on his fuzzy budget math.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event on Sept. 7 in Portsmouth, N.H.: Biden might be able to outdo Paul Ryan if he calls the congressman out on his fuzzy budget math.
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images
T

he idea that a gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden is expected to undo the post-debate damage to President Obama's re-election campaign by out-debating wonky wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) fills Republicans with "open glee," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. In fact, "conservatives have been licking their chops" for this debate since Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate in August, notes Sophie Quinton at National Journal. The American people seem to agree with the GOP's assessment of Thursday night's Biden-Ryan face-off: A CNN/ORC International poll has 55 percent of voters expecting a Ryan win, versus 39 percent for Biden, while a Washington Times/Zogby poll pegs Ryan the winner, 46 percent to 30 percent. What can the vice president do to turn those expectations on their head? Here, six ideas:

1. First, make no gaffes
Biden's first order of business is, like a physician, to do no harm: Don't make the "story" of the night one of his trademark verbal miscues. That may be hard, since the vice president is under a lot of pressure to be aggressive, GOP campaign veteran Tracey Schmitt tells Politico. And "when he is all guns blazing he tends to misfire." Biden doesn't usually make big gaffes in debates, says Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloomberg View, but he'll be hard-pressed to match Ryan's command of policy. And when it comes to counterattacking, "an inadequate response can come across as bluster."

2. Bring up Ryan's Medicare and Social Security plans, a lot
Policy actually makes Ryan "a particularly ripe target" for Biden, says Steve Kornacki at Salon. Romney's No. 2 is, after all, the author of "a far-right budget blueprint" that Romney and the GOP have embraced as a sacred text — "and that Democratic candidates across the country are eagerly running against." Team Obama believes that because "Ryan is far more committed to his philosophical conservatism than Romney," he'll be less comfortable disowning his unpopular ideas to remake Medicare and Social Security than Romney was in his debate, says Jonathan Martin at Politico. Biden is almost certainly being asked to exploit that vulnerability.

3. Politely press Ryan on Romney's untruths
Ryan, of course, isn't running for president, says Salon's Kornacki, but that doesn't mean Biden can't use the debate to undermine Romney. Unlike his boss, Biden should hammer home the sharp differences between the Obama and Romney policies, and more crucially, "challenge Ryan directly on the false claims that Romney made" in his debate. People say VP debates don't matter, but the 2008 face-off between Biden and Sarah Palin was "one of the most-watched political debates in history." If happy-warrior Biden can make Romney look shifty in front of a large audience, he'll do Obama — and himself — a world of good.

4. Deploy the attacks Obama left on the table
This debate is less like 2008 than the 2004 meet between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), says Politico's Martin. Cheney "memorably scorched" the less-seasoned Edwards, and Biden needs to similarly thrash Ryan "on those issues that Obama handled weakly or entirely failed to raise last week," like Romney's "47 percent" flub and opposition to the auto bailout. This is a good role for Biden, says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. For all the focus on his gaffes, he's also "capable of passion and intelligence and something that completely eluded Obama last Wednesday — the memorable soundbite."

5. Trip Ryan up on his numbers
The Wisconsin congressman's reputation as an "intellectual policy wonk" can be exploited, too, University of Pennsylvania's Kathleen Hall Jamieson tells National Journal. His math is a little fuzzy at times, and if Biden "can catch him in an error, he'll be able to dislodge the dominant narrative about Ryan." Fuzzy? "His budget, like Romney's tax plan, is a three-card-monte game," says The Daily Beast's Tomasky. When he's challenged on why "his numbers don't really add up," he will indubitably "smile sweetly" and insist they do. "Biden will surely come in knowing that his No. 1 job is to pin Ryan to the mat and make him wriggle."

6. Just be Joe Biden
Biden's "fatal flaw" as a debater is his "verbosity," but "he is at least aware of this and can even crack a good joke about it," says Ian Leslie at Marbury. But he's got a real strength few other politicians have: "He's a warm, gregarious, and generous person who generally likes other people, including his political opponents." As Obama needs to learn, that's important in a debate — it allows you to "go on the offense without being offensive." So if he's smart, Biden won't "try and out-wonk" Ryan, but "to out-human him instead, while playing a much more aggressive game than his boss."

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week