The Debates: Time for the VPs
BU experts consider Biden vs. Ryan
Now that President Obama has lost his definitive lead in the polls, the traditionally irrelevant debate between candidates for the vice presidency may actually matter. In their only face-off of the campaign, Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan meet tonight at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and each faces a different set of challenges.
Historically, the vice presidential debates have had low viewer numbers (with the exception of the 2008 debate between Biden and Republican Sarah Palin). Overall, voters are more interested in hearing what the presidential candidates have to say, realizing that “in the words of Harry Truman, the buck stops in the Oval Office,” says William Keylor, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history. “Both Obama and Romney will call the shots.”
That’s not to say that the second name on the ticket doesn’t matter.
“The VP is a reflection of the presidential candidate,” says Tammy Vigil, a College of Communication associate dean and an assistant professor of communication, “not just as a surrogate for the candidate, but as a reflection of his decision-making abilities.” Presidential candidate John McCain, Vigil reminds us, was damaged by his choice of the inexperienced and polarizing Palin.
One thing that may make tonight’s debate interesting, Vigil says, is the freedom the VP candidates have to be more aggressive than the presidential candidates, whose performance is constrained by the need to “act presidential.”
Pundits have said that the results of this election will depend heavily on women and white working-class voters in swing states. Consequently, says Bruce Schulman, a CAS professor and chair of the history department, Ryan’s appeal to the Republican Party’s conservative base is unlikely to help the ticket. Biden, meanwhile, was selected by Obama to attract “blue-collar, ethnic Rust Belt workers,” he says, predicting the vice president will have plenty to say about his father, a middle-class used car salesman. At the same time, Biden has a reputation for “putting his foot in his mouth.” Schulman says. In his latest misstep, on the eve of the presidential debate, he described the middle class as being “buried” for the last four years—the same four years President Obama was calling the shots. The comment embarrassed the party and supplied ammunition to the Romney campaign.
Still, the former U.S. senator is a strong debater and a known commodity, and Schulman believes further gaffes probably won’t hurt him much. “The real potential problem,” says Vigil, “would be for Biden to lose his cool and become irate or overly defensive.”
For the younger, less experienced Ryan, the challenge is to be specific about policy issues and to avoid offering misinformation, she says. She points to Ryan’s comments at the Republican National Convention in August, when he faulted Obama for the shutdown of a Wisconsin General Motors plant (it closed under George W. Bush), for his stimulus package (he and Romney both supported it), and for his plan to “raid” Medicare (both parties want to cut $716 billion from the program over the next decade). Vigil says Ryan’s credibility took a “big hit” from the media and can’t afford another blow.
Ryan can shine on domestic issues, she says, as long as he doesn’t make remarks such as “the math is too complex,” which can make him sound as though he is sidestepping the issue.
Schulman adds that Ryan needs to “seem substantive without appearing too doctrinaire and extremist,” particularly when moderator Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, introduces foreign policy. On those topics, Ryan will have plenty of fodder, with the recent unrest across the Middle East and the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Libya. Keylor predicts that Ryan will attack the Obama administration for not doing enough to keep the peace and for being weak on foreign policy.
In that case, Keylor says, Biden should emphasize that such complicated events don’t easily lend themselves to “simplistic, get-tough rhetoric.” He notes that Biden has an advantage when it comes to foreign policy: he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years.
Finally, says Schulman, the debate is an opportunity to look ahead to Biden’s chances in the 2016 presidential election. “Can he show himself a creditable successor to Obama?” he asks. “This is his chance to establish himself as heir.”
The vice presidential debate is tonight, Thursday, October 11, from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time; it will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, as well as all cable news channels, including CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
Find more election year analysis and commentary by BU professors in the video series “Campaign 2012.”