Since 1976, there have been eight televised face-offs between vice presidential nominees. The ninth will come Thursday, when Vice President Biden debates Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) in Danville, Ky.
By now, both parties have worked out tactics for this odd ritual. They require the barbed wit of an insult comedian and the humility of the hind legs in a two-man horse costume.
Candidates are told: Talk up your running mate. Zing your opponent. But avoid letting your career or your policy ideas become the focus. On the biggest night of your political life, it’s not about you.
On Thursday, the stakes will be unusually high, and the job of playing second banana especially tough. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate. Ryan crafted a plan for remaking the entire government.
Now, these proud, successful men will have to insist — convincingly — that they’d rather talk about somebody else.
“Whatever you stood for, you stand for the team” now, said Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who has helped coach Democrats in debates. Popkin said the task might be especially touchy for Ryan, because Romney has said he would not adopt Ryan’s famous budget plan in full.
“You need his goal in life to be power now, not power later,” Popkin said. “The only way I can see you do that is to get Ryan to say, ‘Romney’s budget is better than what I started with.’ ”
In his column, The Post’s Dan Balz wrote that this debate’s stakes are higher than usual for vice presidents, coming in a tight race with big recent shifts in momentum between the Romney and Obama campaigns:
“After Romney’s lopsided victory over President Obama in Denver last week, the exchange will arrive at a fluid and potentially pivotal moment in the campaign.
“For the Obama team, Thursday will offer an opportunity to short-circuit the advances Romney has made since the first presidential debate. For the GOP, Ryan will have a chance to piggyback on Romney’s performance and solidify the gains their ticket has made in recent days.
“The stakes are also higher than usual because the participants have a standing beyond their roles as running mates. They are real players, not potted plants or a sideshow to the main event.
“Biden is vice president and therefore fully accountable for what has gone right and wrong on Obama’s watch. He is a central player in the administration who has not shirked from offering the president unvarnished advice. He also speaks with the credibility of someone who has been in public life for four decades, with wide experience in foreign and domestic policy.
“Ryan, too, is more than just a vice presidential nominee plucked from obscurity to fill out a national ticket. The House Budget Committee chairman may have a limited public profile nationally, but he has served seven terms in Congress and, of far greater significance, his peers consider him the intellectual leader of the Republican Party for his work on the budget and the economy. …
“Some vice presidential debates are mere entertainment relative to the overall race, enjoyable but incidental to the fundamentals of the campaign. That was certainly the case four years ago when the forum, which drew a huge audience, was all about Sarah Palin, whose candidacy had captured the imaginations of friends and foes alike.
“But the outcome of that exchange — a tie or modest victory for Palin in the eyes of many pundits and a win for Biden according to the public — did nothing to shift a race that already had moved away from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and safely toward Obama. Thursday’s debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., could be different.”
What could the dynamics of the actual debate look like? The Fix’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake laid out a few things to watch for in the match up:
“Blood on the floor: The 2008 vice presidential debate between Biden and Sarah Palin was decidedly friendly. Biden didn’t want to look like he was taking gratuitous shots at the already-maligned Palin, and the former Alaska governor was mostly just trying to get through the proceedings without any major slip-ups. But that was a major anomaly in the history of vice presidential debates. Remember that vice presidential picks are chosen — at least in part — for their willingness to be attack dogs. So when the two nominees share a debate stage, fireworks usually ensue. Who could forget Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” line? Or Dick Cheney’s dismissive attitude toward John Edwards in 2004? (Just in case you could forget those moments, we’ve have a post that details them here.) Combine that history with the fact that both Biden and Ryan have shown a willingness to mix it up, and the likely outcome is a debate full of attacks and counterattacks.
“The Ryan wonk out: Most of the pre-debate coverage has and will continue to focus on Biden. (Our two cents: Biden always has been and will again be a very solid debater; it’s one of the reasons he caught Obama’s eye as a potential VP.) But, in our mind, it’s Ryan who has more to prove. Ryan has never — repeat, never — been on a debate stage this (symbolically) big before. And, Ryan’s great strength is his reputation as a numbers and policy geek — both great things in a public servant but less great things in a political debater. If Ryan goes too far down a wonky rabbit hole — we wonder what one of those might look like — he could find himself fighting from behind against the much more experienced Biden. There’s no doubt that the brunt of Ryan’s debate prep has focused on talking less like the chairman of the House Budget Committee and more like an average person, but the Wisconsin congressman is a hard-wired policy nerd. Subsuming that part of his personality will be a major challenge.”