It’s a job ridiculed by some who held it, its most important duty just to be there in case the top guy should die.
The first vice president, John Adams, had this to say: “I am vice president. In this I am nothing but I may be everything.”
Similarly, vice presidential debates are often viewed as a sideline to the Big Show. But that’s not true of Thursday’s debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan.
After last week’s universally panned performance by President Barack Obama in his first debate with Mitt Romney, this veep debate takes on added significance and both Ryan and Biden face additional pressures. Biden’s goal is to reverse the momentum of Romney’s strong performance while Ryan will try to continue that momentum and prove he can perform on a big stage.
“I think the shadow that hangs over this debate is obviously what happened in the first debate,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the U.S. Senate. “My assumption is that Biden will try to be way more aggressive and try in some ways to make up for the president’s pitiful performance last week.”
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, agrees that Biden faces pressure to do better than Obama.
“I think the vice president has a real burden,” said Yarmuth, “but also an opportunity to reset the narrative. I think he will be more aggressive, but I think the big thing Vice President Biden will do is to talk about the economy and the choices we face in very human terms.”
Danny Briscoe, an Obama supporter and a former member of the Democratic National Committee, said Biden’s task is simple: expose Paul Ryan’s positions on budget matters and remind voters of his conservative stances on social issues.
“Ryan was picked because he was the author of a budget plan that would put seniors on a voucher system; he wants to cut Medicaid, cut Social Security, he wants to give defense contractors more money and he wants to reduce taxes on millionaires — all on the backs of the middle class,” Briscoe said.
He said Biden should also remind viewers that Ryan opposed legislation requiring equal pay for women and has sponsored legislation which would outlaw abortion in cases of rape, incest and life of the mother.
“Biden just needs to talk about this guy’s track record,” said Briscoe, a Centre alum.
Yarmuth said Ryan, the Republicans’ leading congressional budget wonk, views the economy as nothing more than “numbers and philosophy.
“Biden gets it on a human level,” Yarmuth said. “He can bring that kind of empathy to the discussion better than anybody.”
Four years ago, Biden had to be more reserved, cautious to avoid an appearance he might be patronizing his opponent Sarah Palin. That’s not the case this time.
“I expect the vice president to come at me like a cannonball,” Ryan said last week.
But that creates danger for Biden who has a history of inconvenient verbal gaffes.
John David Dyche, a Republican and op-ed columnist for The Courier-Journal and, like Briscoe, a Centre grad, said Biden’s handlers “are using everything short of electro-shock conditioning to make sure he does not wander from script and say something colorful or, even worse, honest.”
Ryan, Dyche said, “must avoid any stumbles, especially in areas outside his expertise like foreign policy, a field in which the moderator, (ABC’s) Martha Raddatz, is knowledgeable. If he makes a mistake, no matter how small, it will feed the narrative of Biden as an upset winner.”
Ryan, only 42, will be appearing on a national debate stage with stakes higher than any he’s faced up to now.
Yarmuth said Ryan “has to create the confidence he could become president of the United States.”
McConnell doesn’t see a problem.
“I don’t think Paul Ryan has to do anything to prove his gravitas or competence,” McConnell said. “I’ve never heard anyone suggest that’s a problem for either one of these guys.”
He said Ryan’s biggest goal is to preserve the momentum gained by Romney’s performance last week.
McConnell said the importance of the debate is clear because both candidates were absent from the campaign trail for three days to prepare for Thursday night.
“There couldn’t be anything more pressure packed than a live audience of millions of people. That’s about as pressure packed as you can imagine,” said McConnell.
The format will also be different than the stand-up scene at last week’s presidential debates. The two men will sit at a table with Raddatz. Yarmuth said the more relaxed setting should help Biden avoid some of the unscripted verbal gaffes he’s known for.
Some criticized the handling of the first presidential debate by PBS’s Jim Lehrer because he often let Romney and Obama exceed their allotted time for an answer. Dyche expects Raddatz to avoid that.
“Raddatz may try to be more of a factor given the criticisms of Lehrer,” he said. “The candidates need to be prepared for that because a moderator has the ability to make a debater look bad.”
McConnell says viewers can expect a spirited exchange. “I think you’re going to have two smart men going at it.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.