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Previewing the Vice Presidential debate, Part One

“Big stakes for Biden and Ryan in VP debate.” So reads the Washington Post’s headline to this story by Dan Balz. Actually, the debate of vice presidential candidates is almost always inconsequential in the end. The odds are that this will be the case once again.

Vice presidential debates seem to take on a heightened importance when an incumbent president loses the first debate. In that event, the party in power looks to its VP to reverse the challenger’s momentum or at least stop the bleeding.

In 1984, George H.W. Bush put in a “stop the bleeding” performance against Geraldine Ferraro, after Ronald Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate. In 1992, Dan Quayle was thwarted at least in part by the comedic presence of James (“Who am I; what am I doing here”) Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate. In 2004, Dick Cheney totally outclassed John Edwards. If Cheney didn’t reverse John Kerry’s momentum, he at least boosted the morale boost of President Bush’s supporters.

The Biden-Ryan debate resembles the Cheney-Edwards matchup in this superficial sense – an old Washington-hand VP is pitted against a young, fresh face. But the differences between the formidable Cheney and the fluffy Biden are as profound as the contrast between pretty boy Edwards, a transparent phony, and Paul Ryan, a policy wonk and intellectual leader of congressional Republicans.

This doesn’t mean Ryan will have his way with Biden, as Cheney did with Edwards. Biden is far more knowledgeable than Edwards was, and he can be effective on the attack. And Ryan, for all of his strengths, is new to the debate game.

Biden is an old debate hand, but has rarely if ever distinguished himself in this format. In the 1988 campaign season, Biden’s debate performance as a presidential hopeful was an embarrassment. I still remember how he nervously twirled his pencil around as it became evident that he could not hang in there with the likes of Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, and Al Gore.

Twenty years later, Biden was lost in the shuffle when he debated Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others. Here’s how Scott Johnson summarized one of Biden’s performances (and be sure to check out what Scott had to say about Obama, as well):

What is he doing here? He does not look the part and does not talk a good game. He believes his own press clippings to the effect that his purported foreign policy expertise has something to offer. Afflicted with a major case of senatitis: Is competitive with Christopher Dodd in the love of his own voice.

But at least in Chris Dodd, Biden had finally found someone he could hang in there with.

A year later, Biden hung in there with Sarah Palin in the vice presidential debate, but only barely. Paul Ryan figures to give Biden a much stronger run for his money.

But what shape will this debate take? I’ll consider this question in a follow-up post.

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