Next Thursday is the vice presidential debate. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), because of his earnest demeanor and mastery of facts, is likely to do well. His own life story is compelling, and he shouldn’t hesitate to use it. He can talk from the heart about his concerns about the future for his young kids in a country piling up debt.
He should make the most of the situation, remembering that his real target is President Obama. As weird and foolish as Joe Biden has appeared from time to time, few voters will vote against the Democratic ticket because of him. The goal, therefore, for Ryan should be to direct the fire at the president, picking up on some of the themes Mitt Romney hit in the first debate.
One of the best places to start is the failed grand bargain. Romney made a strong pitch that he was the candidate best able to sit down with the other side, strike a deal and make progress on our huge fiscal issues: “We — as president, I will sit on day one — actually, the day after I get elected — I’ll sit down with leaders — the Democratic leaders, as well as Republican leaders, and continue — as we did in my state — we met every Monday for a couple hours, talked about the issues and the challenges in the — in the — in our state in that case. We have to work on a collaborative basis, not because we’re going to compromise our principle, but because there’s common ground.” Ryan can pick up from there, noting that the president managed to fumble away a grand bargain, frustrate his own side and infuriate Republicans during the grand-bargain negotiations while Biden made steady progress coming up with a bipartisan batch of spending cuts. (Biden will lap up the praise, no doubt.) Ryan would do well to cite Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” which lays this out in extraordinary detail. (Both Ryan and Biden come off well in the book.)
Ryan can also deliver an strong indictment of Obama’s failure to lead. In the first debate, Obama claimed Romney’s plans were too vague; Ryan should point out that Obama’s are nonexistent. There is no Obama version of Simpson-Bowles. There is no Obama long-term Medicare fix, and there has never been an Obama budget submitted that had less than a trillion-dollar deficit. Obama never submitted a comprehensive immigration reform plan. In this regard, Biden’s long-term tenure in the Senate under both successful Republican and Democratic presidents is an asset to Ryan, which can be used to remind Biden and the voters that when there is a strong president deals can get done.
Ryan might also highlight how inadequate the president’s plans are for job growth. Hiring 100,000 teachers, a bit more stimulus money for infrastructure, more spending (e.g. send everyone to community college!) and tax hikes — really, that’s it? That’s the plan for getting 23 million people back to work? It’s a bit embarrassing, actually, that this is all they’ve got.
Ryan will be especially adept at dissecting Obama's phony debt-reduction plan (an argument Romney made well in the first debate) and in explaining, yet again, the Republicans’ tax plan. On the latter, Ryan would be smart to pick up on an ignored benefit of the Romney tax plan: tax simplification. Reducing the cost and hassle of tax preparation is a good bipartisan issue that Ronald Reagan frequently stressed. That is especially the case for modest-income Americans who don’t have fancy tax accountants. Why is Obama defending a tax code that is incomprehensible and inefficient? He can also remind Biden that this is very much akin to the 1986 tax reform plan. Unlike the president, Joe, you understand how these things get done, I know.
The VP debate will follow Romney’s foreign policy speech on Monday and will also cover foreign policy. In this Ryan might want to avoid the temptation to point out that Biden has been wrong on just about every foreign policy issue for decades (from opposing the Osama bin Laden mission to dividing Iraq in three to the nuclear freeze, he’s never missed a bad idea). Rather, the target should be the president and his incompetent, unrealistic and dangerous national security policy. Obama has fought openly with Israel. (Remember, Joe, when you had to patch things up in Israel after the president condemned the state of Israel for building houses in Jerusalem?) Obama missed the boat on the Green Revolution, and pledged to do everything he could to get rid of Bashar al-Assad and then let the United Nations effectively have the last say.
Ryan should not hesitate to go straight at the president for his serial dishonesty and lack of preparedness in Libya. And Ryan would do well to bring the sequestration issue down to a personal level. How many bases will close in Ohio? How many servicemen will be thrown into a job market with few job opportunities? Here, he can use both Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s warning about the devastating cuts and the prospects of expected jobs losses (twice the number of teachers Obama wants to hire) to hammer Obama.
Ryan should steer clear of a number of traps. No arguing about his own previous Medicare plan(s). Who cares? What is on the table is what Romney is offering. No discussion of Romney’s “gaffes.” Ryan can simply say Romney already explained himself (indeed apologized on the 47 percent remark) and that voters don’t want to hear about he said-he said. He can use some humor here. Joe, I like you a lot, so I really think it would be unfair to get up here and go back through every off-key remark and flub the voters have heard over the last few years. And finally, Ryan should avoid being defensive about the GOP ticket’s foreign policy credentials. In 2008 Obama told us it was all about “judgment” and not “experience”; he’s right and he’s proved to have rotten judgment on everything from massive defense cuts to Israel to Russian “reset.”
The debate can be another substantive tour de force for the Republicans. In this race, any time directly talking to the voters is proving to be invaluable.