That the Obama high command will still feel the same way a week from now is all but guaranteed. Biden’s speech at the Democratic convention, taking place the same night as Obama’s in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, will consist of “bragging on the president in a way the president can’t brag on himself,” in the words of one of Biden’s senior aides—and will likely set the proverbial barn ablaze. But the question of the V.P.’s ultimate impact won’t be settled until October 11, when he debates Ryan at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
The pressure on Biden that night will be plentiful, no doubt, with curiosity about Ryan likely to drive an unusually large audience for a veep debate. (“Our ratings should be better than Kemp-Gore,” quips Biden’s chief of staff, Bruce Reed.) But it will be nothing like what he faced four years ago. By the time that Biden 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. The challenge Biden confronted, therefore, was beating not just Palin but outsize expectations. And while Sarah from Alaska pulled off a Pyrrhic victory by not melting into a puddle on the floor, every post-debate instant poll judged Amtrak Joe the winner by a wide margin.
Taking on Ryan will be a more straightforward proposition. With Palin, the 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. “He had a real tightrope to walk,” recalls former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who played Palin in debate prep with Biden. “We tried to goad him into being condescending, into showing off his Senate-speak. His instinct is to go on the attack, and he had to be careful there, too.”
The challenge this time is different. “Paul is, by everyone’s account and by my observation, a bright guy and is really ideologically driven,” Biden says. “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.’ ”
Quite the contrary. Among conservatives, the widespread assumption is that only one heavyweight will be present on the debate stage, and it won’t be Biden. That Ryan will show off his intellectual superiority—his policy wonkery, his mastery of matters budgetary—leaving the V.P. sputtering and flustered. And more than a few members of Biden’s own party fear that they are right. “There’s no secret about it,” a Democratic consultant observed to the Washington Post. “Ryan is going to school him.”
But this assessment underestimates Biden’s forensic savvy—and may well overstate Ryan’s. True, no one would ever nominate Joe for the chairmanship of Mensa (but then, the same should be said of any adult still enamored of Atlas Shrugged). His career, however, is replete with examples of assiduousness and applied intelligence. It’s often forgotten that it was Biden who, as Senate Judiciary Committee chair, masterminded the defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Also forgotten is how he did it: by huddling with legal scholars such as Harvard’s Laurence Tribe and determining that, although Bork’s strict-constructionist views on abortion were politically problematic, his positions on privacy more broadly were lethal. “Biden is a sponge,” says Granholm. “He’s a quick learner, a hard studier, a ferocious worker, and, most important, incredibly strategic.”
As for Romney’s running mate, Biden’s allies point out that, in his initial weeks on the ticket, Ryan’s armor has been shown to have a variety of glaring chinks: inconsistencies between his putative principles and his behavior on issues ranging from the stimulus to budget votes during the Bush administration. “You go down the list—Medicare Part D, the wars, the tax cuts,” says a prominent Democrat. “There will be a lot of ripe opportunities for Biden to expose Ryan for what he’s not.”
“I think this is going to be a values-driven debate, and on the values plane, there aren’t many people as steadfast as Joe,” adds his old friend and adviser Martilla. “Anybody who lowballs Biden in this setting is making a grave mistake.”
Biden, for his part, points to his experience as providing him a crucial insight that he will bring to bear against Ryan. “Ultimately, vice-presidential debates are about the president and the other nominee,” he says. “It’s all about the principal.”
What this means is that Biden has no intention of debating Ryan except as a proxy for Romney. Whether Ryan will be wise enough to understand the importance of doing the converse and adroit enough to act on it is an open question. His speech at the convention was proof that Ryan can turn on the charm and twist the blade when the red light comes on, at least in a scripted setting. What remains to be seen is if he can pull off the same tricks spontaneously and under fire, while at the same time projecting at least a facsimile of humanity.