Vice-presidential debates often make for better TV than the more sober presidential face-offs. (If you’re not convinced, take a look at the Prospect’s video compilation of the best moments from the VP debates.) There’s been nothing in a presidential debate to match the delightful absurdity of a candidate—in this case, Ross Perot’s addled running mate, Admiral James Stockdale—introducing himself to millions of viewers by posing the existential puzzler, “Why am I here?” There’s never been a slapdown in the main events to equal the iconic moment when Lloyd Bentsen punished Dan Quayle like a naughty schoolboy for likening himself to JFK. And sadly, no presidential contender has yet found it a terrific idea, as Sarah Palin did in 2008, to wink at the camera.
When Joe Biden and Paul Ryan take the stage tonight, the memorable moments are likely to be different—more about jobs and taxes and economic philosophies than “zingers." There’s every potential for a sizzling exchange, especially given the unusually sharp contrast: It’s the Democrats’ fieriest and smartest exponent of little-guy populism in one corner, versus the Republicans’ most ardent champion of small government and big wealth in the other.
Republicans will be on the edges of their seats waiting for a vintage Biden gaffe. The same folks who’ve convinced themselves that President Obama is a foreign-born socialist who’s somehow both destroying America and hopelessly incompetent have long been persuaded that Biden’s a bubble-headed buffoon. They fully expect him to be outclassed by their House Wonk. But Ryan has never been on this stage. And Democrats know Joe better. They remember his sterling turns in the 2008 primary debates, and—in the most-watched debate of that year—the way he coolly, smilingly, un-condescendingly handled Palin. (If you don’t think Biden can show some discipline, watch that one again as you get ready for tonight.)
Chances are, we won’t look backward on November 6 and see tonight’s encounter as a critical turning point in the election. But there’s every chance that we’ll have some juicy moments to recall. And for Democrats, if Biden is dialed in, this could be remembered as the moment when the vice president got everyone’s minds off the depressing affair last week in Denver (and the polls that followed)—and reminded voters that this is a consequential contest between two starkly different views of America.
So They Say
"I think it’s going to be very, very important for Paul Ryan to do what I attempted to do.”
Daily Meme: Better Know the Debaters
- Everyone's excited about tonight's vice-presidential debate, though much of the anticipation centers around the sillier aspects of Joe Biden and Paul Ryan's personas. (To wit: a memorable bit of Biden bashing from The Onion, and these Tumblrs devoted to the biceps and brains of Paul Ryan.)
- But there's a lot more to these candidates than the fact they're easier to poke fun at than their bosses. Here's some homework to catch you up on the real reasons tonight's debate is going to be real fun.
- Ryan Lizza has written profiles of both Biden and Ryan, both focusing on how their relationships with policy have been the defining factors in their rise to the tops of their respective parties.
- You can't get much more thorough than Mark Bowden's nearly 10,000-word profile, which unpacks the charisma and empathy at the core of Biden's personality...
- ...charisma and empathy (and policy know-how) that show no signs of waning after four years in the White House, as John Heilemann points out. (Even though being second-in-command isn't quite Biden's bag).
- Alec MacGillis reveals the wonky charm that has helped Paul Ryan capture the hearts of the Republican elites.
- While Michael Crowley highlights the blue-collar charm that has been invaluable for the Romney campaign's efforts to woo of the Republican base—as well as those voters still stranded in the middle.
- Jon Chait takes both sides of the patented Paul Ryan charm offensive and reveals the gaping holes in its logic and execution.
- Finally, to hear the scoop from their own mouths, here are interviews with bothBiden and Ryan.
What We're Writing
- Patrick Caldwell talks with two VP debate-preppers: Jennifer Granholm and Thomas Downey.
- Harold Meyerson reports on the rich siblings who are teaming up to defeat Jerry Brown’s tax initiative in California.
What We're Reading
- Andre Cherni revisits 1948 and the original October Surprise.
- Is the Good Obama making a comeback?
- Daniel Ross provides a catalog of “Angry Rich Old Guys Who Hate Obama.”
- Jack Shafer ponders the reasons why we vote for liars.
- Paul Ryan’s goofy weightlifting faces, published by Time, may be the next best thing to Michael Dukakis in a tank.
- Bloomberg Businessweek has quite the chewy cover package this week, unpacking the data on whether our country is better off now than it was when Obama took office (hint: it depends).
- Ramesh Ponnuru fact-checks the fact-checkers zeroing in (mostly) on the Romney/Ryan ticket...
- ... after which he ran over to Daily Intel and discussed the election with Jon Chait in a very entertaining chat.
Polls of the Day
A blizzard of new polling data shows that it might be safe for Democrats to stop freaking out already. Indications are that Romney’s post-debate bounce has … stopped bouncing. In Ohio, for instance, NBC/Wall Street Journal has Obama leading 51-45—two points better for Romney than the pre-debate poll, but hardly a sea change. In fact, the president still has the edge in most swing states.
For more polling information, go to the Prospect’s 2012 election map.
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