2:13 pm Oct. 11, 2012
Josh: Paul Ryan is going to try to do what Romney did at the first debate, talking about his campaign's conservative ideas in reassuring tones, and Joe Biden's going to do what Obama didn't, which is to call out distortions and point out similarities between Romney's policies and the ones that didn't work under George W. Bush.
Does that sound about right?
Steve: Yeah, I think so. I mean, what's the alternative for Ryan? He's not going to show up and talk up the details of his budget plan, or spell out the deductions that would have to be on the table to make the tax cut plan even remotely workable from a deficit standpoint, and I can't imagine he's any more eager to get into the culture war/women's issues stuff than Romney is. But I think he's probably as good as Romney at making confident, moderate-sounding assertions and turning the discussion back to the failed Obama economy, Obama's unconscionable raid on Medicare, etc.
And for Biden, yeah, it's impossible to imagine him being passive tonight. It's not his nature, and his party will kill him if he is. So he'll raise all of the questions that Obama didn't. The question is whether he can find a way to do it that actually puts Ryan in a tight spot. That's harder than it sounds, I think. Romney showed last week that if you're really glib and confident, you can say 2 + 2 =5 in a debate and it will sound right to a lot of people.
Also, I hate that they're sitting at a table. I think that's only happened before in the Cheney debates, and it was at his insistence, presumably because of his physical condition. But there's no excuse for that with these two, and my feeling is that the intimacy could inhibit a real debate.
Josh: Doesn't the moderator have a role to play there? Do you expect a correction to Lehrer's passivity? Don't you expect that the number one goal going in will be to not get steamrolled by the candidates, and to be more aggressive in general?
Steve: Of all the moderators, I know the least about Martha Raddatz, so I don't have a sense of her style. But I actually doubt she'll be much different than Lehrer, because her real task is to implement the debate commission's vision. And the debate commission kind of reminds me of the guys behind the BCS in college football—this stodgy old group that's defiantly indifferent to popular opinion. I mean, the fact that the commission picked Lehrer, a 78-year-old guy who is mostly retired, tells you plenty to start with.
If Raddatz has control over which topics are raised, maybe her selection will be more diverse than Lehrer's. But in terms of being a more forceful presence, I doubt it will be much different.
￼Josh: Is Biden better suited to a lightly regulated affair against a confident opponent than Obama was?
Steve: I mean, almost anyone would be better suited to it than Obama. But Biden has always struck me as a really strong debater, and a really good communicator in general.
I know, I know—the gaffes. And the Neil Kinnock stuff. And "literally." But still, he seems to aim his arguments for the gut as much as the head, and he delivers them with real confidence and authority, and also some warmth and humor. It's an effective combination.
How many times in '07 and '08 did you edit a column from me praising Biden as the real winner of a debate? Or go back and read "What it Takes"—how Biden could walk into almost any room in '87 and just own it. He's not flawless and maybe he'll make some kind of odd-sounding statement that will become the story, but I think he's really good in these settings, and he doesn't have to walk on eggshells this time like he did with Palin.
Josh: How about Ryan? As any Republican surrogate will tell you, he's a good speaker who looks nice on TV. But as you've noted, he hasn't always been so great when he's subjected to follow-ups. (And I'm not talking here about that TV interview he cut short, in which if you ask me the questioner comes off way weirder than Ryan did.)
Steve: It's probably a function of his newness on the national stage. He's been unusually visible for a congressman, but much of the coverage he attracted before this race was pretty flattering—national TV pundits and columnists saluting him for his serious, specific ideas and for being one of the rare adults in Washington and a numbers-lover. He's facing a new level of scrutiny now, and there have been some rough moments with follow-ups—I'm thinking more of the Hume interview in August and Chris Wallace a few weeks ago.
But it's not like the Romney campaign is unaware of this, so I assume they'll have him prepped this time. What I don't know is how, exactly, he gets around it, because again, it's not like he can actually give a real answer to the question of how they'll pay for the tax cut.
Josh: Isn't the answer for Ryan just to keep steering the conversation into the weeds? He's shown that he's perfectly capable of sounding smart and substantive, even when the details he's conveying aren't the ones his questioner is looking for.
Wasn't that the lesson of Romney's debate performance? Seems like the scenario they fear the very least is that Biden gets drawn into arguments about the specifics that come across to viewers as a wash.
Steve: Right, as long as Ryan's not cornered on, say, the deductions and ends up coming across as evasive or saying something ridiculous like, say, "I don't have the time" to get into the details.