The American vice presidential debate may be a sideshow to educated pollsters, but the role has proven a fairly important one in the past two administrations, and Democrats are certainly desperate for anything that might shift the conversation away from President Obama’s poor performance against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
So who will Vice President Joe Biden, the former six-term senator and occasional comic figure, be facing off against in tonight’s debate?
Asked in April whether Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., might be a good running mate for Romney, Republican political insiders ranked Ryan a tie for third place. He was a party leader, sure, and an attractive spokesman, but his plans for health care entitlements are controversial. A tendency to upstage the man in charge, too—look how uneasy his relationship is with House Speaker John Boehner, his nominal leader.
On Aug. 11, he was introduced as the Republican vice presidential candidate.
Ryan has a tendency to move fast. He was elected to the national legislature at age 29 in 1999, but I began covering him 10 years later, when he charged himself with articulating his party’s intellectual opposition to a newly elected President Obama. He helped turn the House back to Republican control in 2010, becoming the chairman of the Budget Committee. I remember congratulating a magazine writer who became a Ryan speechwriter during this time for joining a rising operation.
After Romney’s energetic, if frequently disingenuous, debate performance on Oct. 3 outshone a listless Obama and gave the conservative ticket momentum, Ryan’s job will be to maintain the pace. Before the debate, conservatives complained that Romney wasn’t deploying Ryan, who has been limited to local events and media and is avoiding the national spotlight, widely enough to spread his message. They may have a point. One thing I learned from covering Ryan is that he’s a singular communicator for some fairly radical proposals. Here’s how he does it:
He’s got a nose for the big issue. Ryan’s formative years in Washington after college were spent absorbing conservative economic doctrine that convinced him of the importance of a dramatically limited public sector. But as a member and then chairman of the Budget Committee, he had little official responsibility: The committee sets broad spending levels in consultation with party leaders. Nonetheless, he’s famous for his plans to privatize and reduce spending on Medicare, America’s public health insurance plan for seniors. Ryan made entitlements his cause when he realized they were a big driver of government spending, which left the members of his party ostensibly responsible for overseeing the programs rather miffed.
He knows a bipartisan deal sounds nice. Ryan has frequently praised a debt-reduction plan released by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission in 2010, and dinged Obama for not accepting its recommendations outright. He doesn’t always mention that as a member of the commission, he voted against the plan because it increased taxes as well as cutting spending. Although he has collaborated with Democrats such as former budget Director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Ron Wyden of Washington on health care reform plans, he doesn’t always mention that both collaborators have decried Romney’s plans.
He manages expectations. The Martyrology of Paul Ryan is long and varied; he is well versed in clearing ground ahead of proposals that cut social spending on the poor and seniors. ”We are we are giving them a political weapon to go against us,” he said after introducing one budget plan. “But they will have to lie and demagogue to make it a weapon.” Democrats cut his plan to ribbons in the press, but Ryan got courage points for handing them the knife. I’m not sure why the media likes this.