Gyory: Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate might just be one that matters
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Could Thursday night's face-off between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan be the exception to the rule about vice presidential debates?
Generally, vice presidential debates haven't made a major impact on the overall campaigns. Last time, in 2008 with Sarah Palin -- just as in 1984 with Geraldine Ferraro -- the question was how the first female candidates for vice president would fare under the national debate spotlight. Both held their own, but neither advanced their running mate's prospects for victory. Similarly, in 1988, when Dan Quayle bombed under Lloyd Bentsen's withering riposte -- "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" -- it had no effect on the larger race. The Al Gore-Jack Kemp debate in 1996 barely made an impression.
In fact, only two vice presidential debates proved consequential since the first matchup in 1976. There was 1992, when retired Adm. James Stockdale's nearly incoherent performance undercut running mate Ross Perot's attempt to move beyond protest-candidate status, proving a benefit to Bill Clinton's surge. And 2004, when Vice President Dick Cheney's cross-body block of John Edwards checked John Kerry's momentum from President George W. Bush's poor first debate performance.
President Barack Obama fell prey to that incumbent jinx in his first debate this year, appearing flat and unfocused last week in Denver. Gov. Mitt Romney's strong performance both rallied the Republican faithful and opened the door to swing voters taking a second look at his candidacy.
So Democrats hope that, Thursday night, Biden will bring Romney's momentum to a halt. And Republicans are looking for another winning performance.
Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) take the stage in the wake of economic reports released last week that appear to put pressure on the Republican Party's prime argument, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The Department of Labor reported that, for the first time, the number of jobs in the national economy was higher than when President Barack Obama took office. And the unemployment rate dropped below 8 percent -- the lowest level since Obama's inauguration.
These statistics did not come in isolation; auto sales, the stock market and consumer confidence were all rising. In fact, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in late September found that 57 percent of registered voters felt the economy was recovering.
So Ryan's burden is to convince voters to switch horses midstream in a treacherous world economy, when their pessimism on the economy seems, at long last, to be lifting. And Biden's job, in the face of polls showing the race tightening, is to exploit Romney's authenticity gap on key issues.
The personalities of the two debaters could come into play. Both are considered to hold top-of-the-ticket dreams, but their job now is to advance their running mates' case, not their own. Biden can passionately mirror middle-class concerns and is quite knowledgeable about foreign policy -- but he is also a gaffe machine. Ryan, since exploding onto the national stage as Romney's running mate, has made several missteps on facts and lacks foreign policy experience.
Ryan, while holding encyclopedic knowledge of domestic policy, too often relishes challenging the gravitational forces underlying the last half century of American politics, namely that Republicans wax when they play to broad themes, but wane when they get into the weeds on Medicare and Social Security. Will Ryan soar or crash on Thursday as he justifies his ticket's domestic platform?
Biden and Ryan are both high-risk, high-reward debaters, which means there's uncertainty and drama going into the contest. The talisman for judging success will be whether, at the end of the night, Biden looks quite old or Ryan looks rather young.
Bruce N. Gyory is a consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany.