Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately recounted an exchange during a 2007 Democratic presidential debate. Then-Sen. Joe Biden answered “yes” when he was asked if he could reassure voters that he had “the discipline” needed “on the world stage.”
Leaving aside Joe Biden’s verbal miscues, it’s worth remembering that he’s a formidable debater. Most recently he did well going up against Sarah Palin, who used the 2008 vice presidential debate to pull out of a nosedive after her interview with Katie Couric. And while Biden’s 2008 presidential bid quickly faded, he turned in solid, funny performances in which he managed to seem knowledgeable without the pomposity of someone who had been in the Senate since 1973.
When the late Tim Russert, moderating a debate, tried to get all the candidates to take a pledge about preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Biden offered a nuanced answer, posing that if it destabilized Pakistan then that would change his calculus. When Brian Williams noted that Biden had been criticized as too verbose and asked if he had the discipline to be president, Biden said, “Yes.” His monosyllabic answer hung in the air to laughter and applause.
This is not to say that Biden will win when he and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., debate in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11. Although Ryan has never really had a tough congressional opponent, he’s adroit on the House floor, a venue that gives some sense of how a politician thinks on his feet despite the fact it isn’t a debating forum. The same discipline that the 42-year-old Ryan brings to his legendary fitness regime and attention to budget details will be on display.
The two important things to remember about presidential (and vice presidential) debates are how different they are from other political events and how unpredictable they can be. Great orators on the stump don’t necessarily make great debaters, and vice versa. In 2004, expectations were high for John Edwards when he took on Dick Cheney. We now see Edwards through the prism of his mistress, the child he denied fathering, and his trial for misappropriating campaign funds. But at the time, Edwards was known not only for great stump speeches but for his skill as one of the nation’s best plaintiffs’ lawyers, someone who could sway a jury. Conversely, Cheney had by that time already acquired the image as someone who didn’t suffer fools and who seemed like anything but a slick, camera-ready politician.
As it happened, Cheney got the better of Edwards. His answers conveyed authority, not egomania, and he offered grandfatherly reassurance rather than international adventurism. Although Edwards’s invocation of Cheney’s “gay” daughter—his word—as a way of promoting civil unions probably seemed like a good idea in rehearsal, at the debate it not only fell flat but set Cheney up to look more kindly.
Such unpredictable moments are at the heart of a debate—which is why there’s no easy way to call their outcome.
As for why it’s different than other forums, well, it just is. Biden can be verbose in speeches, as he often was during his long years as a committee chairman. (Brit Hume, now of Fox News, wrote a piece for The New Republic in 1985 with the cover line, “Shut Up, Joe,” that portrayed Biden as a gasbag.) Biden’s been more concise in recent debates, however. Mitt Romney can be a less-than-commanding orator, but he’s a very solid debater. Ryan seems to be good at all of those things—at least so far.
The interesting dynamic will be age. The 27 years that separate Biden and Ryan constitute the biggest gap since veep candidates began debating in modern times, even bigger than Dan Quayle (41) and Lloyd Bentsen (67) in 1988. Can Ryan link Biden’s age (69) with Democratic policies? (“Mr. Vice President, you’ve been in Washington 40 years ... ”) Can Biden use his experience, especially in foreign policy, to diminish Ryan? It’d be wrong to underestimate either man.
This article appears in the September 4, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.