Biden to the Rescue?

After Obama’s downer performance in Denver, what could be worse for Chicago than a looming vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan? In one corner the goofy, irrepressible gaffemeister; in the other, the intellectual mitochondrion of the Republican Party.

The conventional wisdom on the Biden-Ryan debate seems to favor the Janesville Kid. Indeed, conservatives are generally as enamored with Ryan’s “seriousness” as they are dismissive of Biden’s mental acuity. But in this case, it bears mentioning that Biden embodies precisely the sort of limber, no-holds-barred partisan style that was missing from Obama on Wednesday. (And wasn’t really there in 2008 either; he was just facing a better opponent this time around.) While Obama held back on the obvious rabble-rousing talking points–no mention of the 47% video, the Cayman Islands, Bain Capital, income inequality, etc.–Biden is all but assured to frame the campaign in populist terms.

Dating back to his decision to let Biden sell the stimulus to the public in 2009, Obama has essentially conceded that his VP is a more effective populist policy wonk than he is. That’s continued this year on the campaign trail. From John Heilemann’s recent New York profile of Biden:

Far in advance of the president, and even before the GOP had settled on its nominee, it was Biden who began the process of framing the argument against the Republicans with a series of major policy speeches in the spring and then in ripping Romney as a rapacious, secretive plutocrat devoid of empathy for ordinary people. “Chicago has been eager from the very beginning,” a top Biden adviser tells me, “for him to be the sharp tip of the spear.”

That vigor–or “bluntness and ebullience”–as David Axelrod puts it, is precisely what was lacking from Obama, who appeared “presidential” at best and listless at worst. There’s little risk Biden suddenly develops the urge to act vice-presidential, after four years of unpredictability.

What’s more, Biden’s blue-collar shtick–recall his recent canoodle with an affectionate motorcycle biker–is geared specifically at Obama’s weakest constituency: working-class white and elderly voters. Who happen to be, as Biden likes to frame it, some of the people who would be most imperiled by a Romney/Ryan presidency. Speaking to a Durham audience about Mitt Romney’s tendentious claims about the difference between offshoring and outsourcing, Biden mused this summer: “You can just hear the conversation; two guys on the unemployment line, one guy turns and says, ‘Were you outsourced or offshored?'”

Heilemann frames the importance of this sort of appeal to the “blue-collar, silver-domed” crowd:

At a moment of pervasive economic anxiety and roiling ire at the one percent and its political enablers, Biden is the only person on either party’s ticket genuinely fluent in the language of populism. And at a juncture at which the Romney-Ryan operation has concluded that running up its margins with working-class and elderly white voters is its sole path to victory, Biden is the only one who can, you know, go there and not seem like a big fat fraud.

One of Obama’s biggest missed opportunities Wednesday night occurred when moderator Jim Lehrer asked the candidates about their respective plans for Social Security. Obama, rather than point out that his opponent’s running mate proposed privatizing it in 2010, said he suspected he and Romney mostly agreed. Biden is unlikely to let a similar opportunity slip.

Finally, in the red corner, Ryan’s own debating prowess shouldn’t be overestimated. To be sure, he’s a terrific public speaker, and he can oscillate between dewey-eyed and jackhammer at will. That said, he’s thin-skinned, and when pushed, he can come across as petulant and snide. Take this painfully awkward mini-debate with DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz from 2010, in which Ryan takes eye-rolling dismissiveness to the next level. More recently, after Obama pilloried his budget plan in front of him last April, Ryan didn’t take it well. Noting with incredulity that the president was a mere twelve feet away from him during the speech, Ryan told a radio host that he had “never seen a president give a speech like this before. I’ve never seen a president stoop to this level of distortion, demagoguery, partisanship.”

With Biden frothing at the mouth, it doesn’t seem obvious that Ryan, so accustomed to being feted by his party, will deal well with adversity this Thursday.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.