Historically, “vice presidential debates have not mattered,” said Emory University debate coach Bill Newnam.
But all that changed in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate last week, helping Republican Mitt Romney erase the Democratic incumbent’s yearlong lead in the polls.
Here’s what Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan need to do Thursday night during their encounter at Centre College in Danville, Ky.:
1. Stop the bleeding.
Before the first debate, the Obama-Biden ticket was leading in the RealClearPolitics poll index by an average of 4 percentage points. Tuesday, for the first time in 2012, Romney and Ryan took the lead. “Obama didn’t just hurt himself, he hurt the brand,” said independent pollster John Zogby. “There’s a lot of pressure on Biden. He has to get them back on track because they’re bleeding now.”
2 Attack, attack, attack! (But in a systematic way.)
Obama found himself on the defensive from the first moments of the first debate. His running mate must seize the offensive and relentlessly critique Ryan’s record as chairman of the House Budget Committee, as well as Team Romney’s economic and foreign policy proposals. “It’s the vice presidential candidate’s role to go out and attack the other side,” said Sherri Greenberg, director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. One cautionary note: It’s possible to be too aggressive. (Examples: Al Gore invading George W. Bush’s space at their first debate in 2000. Or Jimmy Carter’s serial attacks on Ronald Reagan in 1980, ending with Reagan’s retort “There you go again.”)
3 Win the budget/tax battle.
Biden needs to convince average Americans that Ryan’s past support for cuts in middle-class entitlements such as college financial aid and Medicare could hurt them personally. “Biden wants to remind people of the Ryan budget and the impact on their lives,” said American University political communication professor Dotty Lynch, “especially if Medicare is changed and government programs like Medicaid and student loans are cut.”
4 Look like the only grown-up on the stage on international issues.
Joe Biden has been a player on foreign policy issues since Paul Ryan was, well, 3 years old. The vice president needs to use his knowledge and record, as senator and vice president, to his advantage. “He will challenge Ryan on his lack of experience and also criticize Romney,” said Jim Granato, director of the Hobby Center for Public Affairs at the University of Houston.
5. Don’t be a bully.
It’s fine to be Fightin’ Joe, champion of the middle class. It’s not OK to be Mr. McNasty or Mr. McDirty. Americans don’t mind some tough, substantive exchanges. But personal attacks or relentless negativism could backfire and make Ryan a more sympathetic figure.
6. Don’t commit a major gaffe that will dominate the headlines whatever else happens in the debate.
Republicans are quick to note that Joe Biden is a human gaffe machine. He can terrify his handlers by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. A whopper during Thursday’s big showdown would definitely be the wrong time. “Joe Biden must be ‘gaffe-free’ and aggressive,” said Steven E. Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “His job is to reveal the shortcomings of the Romney-Ryan approach far more clearly than the president did in his first debate.”
1. Keep the momentum going.
A win or a tie is fine for the Wisconsin lawmaker. He just wants to make sure that he doesn’t do anything that reverses the gains created by Romney’s aggressive, self-assured performance in the first debate. “The task for the Romney campaign is to maintain the momentum generated by the first presidential debate,” said Steven Schier of Carleton College. “That means Paul Ryan cannot afford to lose the debate.”
2. Avoid wonkishness.
Like Obama, Ryan can be professorial and wonkish. He needs to ditch the green eyeshades and talk about budget and tax choices in a way that resonates with average Americans. “Congressman Ryan’s specialty is giving power-point presentations that involve a lot of data and visual aids,” Kall said. “He will be without those aids during the debate and must find a way to verbally integrate this information.”
3. Pay attention to details.
Ryan tripped up recently when Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace tried to pin him down on details of the Romney-Ryan tax cut plan. He has said, in various venues, that the issue is too complicated to discuss on radio or television. That excuse won’t fly during a 90-minute vice presidential debate.
“Ryan is going to be on the defensive,” Newnam said. “He’s going to try to explain how things add up.” How can you cut everybody’s tax rates by 20 percent, cut business taxes and end up with a revenue-neutral tax plan? Ryan needs a concise, Romney-like answer to the all-but-certain question.
4. Fight to a draw (or win) on Medicare and Social Security.
Biden is sure to attack Ryan for proposing to replace Medicare with a voucher program for Americans born after 1957. And for supporting former President George W. Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security. Over-65 voters could well decide the results in Florida, Ohio and Iowa. And baby boomers are anxious about any possible changes in their government retirement plans. Ryan doesn’t have to win the argument with Biden. But he has to avoid a clear defeat.
5. Sound competent on foreign policy
Ryan is an undisputed expert on budget matters, but he has not been a major player on international issues. He needs to show a nuanced understanding of geopolitical matters.
And he must avoid any misstatements on foreign policy. “Ryan will have to demonstrate he can articulate — and is informed on — foreign policy, given Biden’s large advantage in foreign policy experience,” said Granato.
6. Look like he could be a president.
The gravitas thing. Dan Quayle flunked this test against Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 (“you’re no Jack Kennedy”) and then against Al Gore in 1992. (Of course, Quayle and George Bush were elected in ’88 anyway.) Ryan is no Dan Quayle, but he does have questions to answer. “He’s only 42,” said independent pollster John Zogby. “He’s got to show that he belongs there.”