Heilemann: Joe Biden Explains His Plan to Defeat Paul Ryan

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Photo: Joe Raedle/2012 Getty Images

In the middle of August, Impolitic spent a glorious three days south of the Mason-Dixon line with Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. At the end of the trip, on the way back from Roanoke, Virginia, to Washington, D.C., I interviewed Biden aboard Air Force Two for the better part of 45 minutes. It was the first interview, for either print or broadcast, that Biden had given since his ill-fated appearance on Meet the Press in May, when he front-ran his boss on the topic of gay marriage and kicked up a steaming shitstorm. Little did I know, however, that our conversation would be the only interview the VP would give (up to now) in the general election. Which makes it worth returning to this afternoon, a few hours before his debate with Paul Ryan in Danville, Kentucky.

The Biden-Ryan tête-à-tête was always guaranteed to attract wider interest than most veep debates — if only because of the Republican running mate's status as the intellectual and ideological leader of the congressional wing of his party. Given Barack Obama's belly flop in Denver, though, the level of interest in the undercard has risen even higher, along with the pressure on Biden to halt the slide on his side and provide a degree of solace to a Democratic base that has been, for a week now, in (an exaggerated) state of near panic.

Biden, of course, felt the glare of a skin-blanching spotlight when he took to the debate stage last time around — again largely because of the obsessive interest in his opponent (i.e., She Who Need Not Be Named). The VP showdown in 2008, in fact, drew a larger TV audience than any of the three debates between Obama and John McCain. But the challenge Biden faced back then was nothing like the one he confronts tonight. As I wrote in that cover story, "By the time he finally went mano a mama grizzly with Palin, her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric had transformed her from a shooting star into a hick on a high wire ... (T)he primary danger Biden had to guard against was appearing patronizing to her, seeming to dismiss her as a dim bulb — which he thought she was."

When we talked on Air Force Two, Biden had yet to start his formal prep for his debate with Ryan. But he was acutely aware of how the test ahead of him differed from the one behind him.

"Look, in the Palin debate, there was a sort of an automatic expectation that Biden’s going to dispatch her," Biden told me. "When in fact it was maybe one of the most difficult debates I’ve ever had because she’s so good in her interpersonal skills that she could’ve very easily used a little jujitsu ... So it really helped me that the governor of Michigan" — Jennifer Granholm, who played Palin in Biden's debate prep sessions then — "had her down pat and got me prepared to not be just wide open and say, basically, 'That idea makes no sense!' You know?"

"Whereas with Paul," Biden continued, "Paul is, by everyone’s account and my observation, a bright guy and he is really ideologically driven. So the difference is, I don’t think I’m going to have to worry that people are going to say, 'There goes that guy pouncing on poor young Paul Ryan.' And the other side is, I think he’ll be a very good debater. I think he’ll be a very good debater in the traditional sense. And so I think it’s going to be a different kind of prep, in that we are more likely to get into more explicit detail, more about what is the actual effect of the Ryan budget as it relates to Medicare, and what will it actually do to tax policy. But the other part of that is that I’m kinda looking forward to it because there’s gonna be five or six pieces to this debate, and so the good news about it is, I’m gonna be able to say, 'Well, look, I think you’re dead wrong on this or that for the following three reasons.'"

"But ultimately vice-presidential debates are about the president and the other nominee. Because the one thing you gotta accept and know about being vice-president is that the only power and influence you have is all reflective. There is no inherent power or particular pressure point or persuasion. It’s all about the principal. And so in that sense, the interesting thing, I think, is gonna be with Paul — let’s assume that for some reason, somehow he’s able to do it, Romney repudiates the Ryan budget. Well, I’m not going to be debating the Ryan budget then. I’m not gonna waste time to say, 'But Paul, you were for that before,' you know?"

"So I think the interesting thing about this debate will be how much Romney embraces out front, not just the Ryan budget, but Ryan’s very, very conservative views [across the board]. Look, I was talking to one of my friends in the House after Paul was picked. And he said he did an interview —because he likes Paul and knows him — where he told the interviewer that Paul was a good guy and that he liked him. And he said, 'But I quickly added, 'Don’t misunderstand, there’s not an ounce of compromise in this man. None.’ So the nature of the debate is going to be impacted a lot by how Ryan and Romney [present themselves as a ticket]. And I think it will be a good debate. I mean, this is stuff he’s good at."

Much has changed in the race since Biden laid all this out to me, to be sure. But there are several clear takeaways that have been reinforced by reporting (by others and by mysef) about the VP's game plan. First, he plans to be aggressive. Second, he plans to be substantive and data-driven. Third, he plans to draw out the clear ideological contrasts between the Democratic and Republican tickets. And fourth, he plans to perform with one thing paramount in his mind: that he isn't debating solely (or even mainly) as Joe Biden qua Joe Biden, but as a proxy for the president.

All through his career, Biden has had one huge advantage in every debate he's ever engaged in: being systematically underestimated by the press and his opponents. If you take a look back at Biden's history, you'll see a litany of showdowns — from the confirmation fight over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court to Biden's throwdown with Slobodan Milosevic to the debates in the 2008 Democratic primaries — where he has overperformed against the conventional wisdom. (One exception not forgotten nor forgiven by liberal women: his failure to stop Clarence Thomas from joining the Supremes.) And my guess is that a similar dynamic will play out tonight in the Battle in the Bluegrass State.

Whether I'm proven right or made to look foolish for that prediction in a few hours, there are two things about which I have something approaching certainty: (1) If you're playing a drinking game during the debate, it would be severely unwise to center it on Biden's deployment of the word literally — unless of course you're in the market for a case of alcohol poisoning; and (2) hoo boy, this is gonna be a wild one — so pop a bowl of popcorn, fasten your seatbelts, and settle in for some king-hell fun.