The last time vice presidential candidates debated at Centre College in Danville, Ky., it was obvious that someone with a sense of humor came up with the slogan—“Thrill in the ’Ville”—for there weren’t many thrills in that 2000 showdown between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. But when Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan bring the national spotlight back to the tiny Kentucky campus on Thursday, there will be a twist that just may make the sequel more memorable.
Starring will be the almost-70-year-old Biden and his 42-year-old challenger. The nearly 28-year age gap is the largest in the history of vice presidential debates. The last national candidate born before the baby boom is taking on the first national candidate born after the baby boom. As Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, puts it, “It’s not just a generation gap; it’s a two-generation gap.” It is the “silent generation” (those born between 1925 and 1945) against Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1981.) It is why this debate is so promising. And with one candidate who remembers a past without Medicare and another candidate who can see a future without Medicare unless revolutionary change is made, there is a good chance that Medicare will dominate the discussion.
Medicare may be just a policy debate for President Obama and Mitt Romney. But for their running mates, it is much more than that. For them, it is a reflection of their very different life experiences. And, as is the case on so many issues for the two men, it reflects the reality that they grew up in Americas that were starkly different.
By the time Ryan was born in 1970, Biden had graduated from college, married, finished law school, become a father, and entered politics. By the time Ryan cast his first presidential ballot in 1988, Biden had voted in six presidential elections, run for president once, and was in his third term as a U.S. senator. As a high-school student, Biden watched people line up for a polio vaccine that lifted a nation’s dread of a crippling disease. As a high-school student, Ryan watched people secretly go for AIDS testing as doctors seemed powerless to stem the rising fear of a disease that seemed to target his generation.
Growing up, Biden saw an activist government land a man on the moon, champion civil rights, and tackle poverty. Growing up, Ryan witnessed a bureaucratic government lose space shuttle crews, trade arms for hostages, and fumble welfare. Biden graduated from college in 1965 amid prosperity. Ryan graduated from college in 1992 amid recession. Biden was inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to public service; Ryan was moved by Ronald Reagan’s dismissal of government as “the problem.”
These are the times and the life experiences that shaped them, deeply affecting their politics and giving them sharply different views of what government can and should do. “Ryan is the Reagan generation. Biden is Kennedy’s,” Schnur says. “It is not surprising that two smart, ambitious people who came of age in those two eras were influenced by the leading political figures of the time.”
Nor should it be a surprise that Biden and Ryan approach Medicare from their different generational perspectives. “We see an America where Social Security is protected, where Medicare is available to distressed people, and where Medicare fulfills its original mission,” the vice president told seniors in Virginia recently, standing up for the traditional program and accusing Republicans of wanting to “voucherize” it.
Ryan, in turn, does not shy away from the generational influence on his views, something he acknowledged at a House Budget Committee hearing in March 2010. “If you’re under 55, those of us in my X generation and everybody else, we know we’re not getting the program as it’s currently structured,” he said then. “So why don’t we come up with an idea to save the program, to make it sustainable, to give us a benefit—my generation—that’s something we know we can count on?” With statements like that, Ryan is very much a spokesman for his fellow Generation X-ers, who long have been deeply cynical about whether either Social Security or Medicare will be there when the first wave of them hits retirement age in 2031.
Neither Ryan nor Romney has closed this sale yet. The Danville debate gives Ryan his best opportunity to do that. But it also gives Biden his best forum for positioning the Democratic ticket as championing the interests of the voters who fall between these two generations, the baby boomers who are the largest part of the electorate and are entering their retirement years. Both Biden and Ryan have a chance to serve as the best proxy for each group’s fears about Medicare.
The differences between these two candidates and their generations are so sharp that the Kentucky debate has a chance to be remembered for more than zingers or gaffes. Of course, being remembered at all is a challenge for a vice presidential debate. The previous nine showdowns between running mates were mere blips in the campaigning.
Bob Dole’s crack about “Democrat wars” in 1976. Geraldine Ferraro’s complaint that George H.W. Bush was “patronizing” her in 1984. Lloyd Bentsen’s stinging put-down of Dan Quayle when he seemed to be comparing himself to Kennedy in 1988. Sarah Palin’s request to call Biden “Joe” in 2008. Historically, that’s about as deep as these debates ever got, with little resembling serous policy discussion.
This time—thanks to a generationally influenced and deep-seated difference on Medicare—there just may be a serious discussion on a critical issue. For those in the ’Ville or watching at home, that’s about as big of thrill as they can hope for.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong year for the Palin-Biden debate, it was in 2008.
This article appears in the October 6, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.