Danville, Ky. — Inside of the House Budget Committee, on Morning Joe, and in front of a PowerPoint slide, Paul Ryan is completely at ease. He is the Republican party’s most articulate and winsome wonk. But he has never been in a nationally televised, one-on-one debate during the final weeks of a presidential campaign. His challenge on Thursday night will be to communicate his ideas with his usual gusto without overly relying on Beltway vernacular. During debate prep in central Virginia, Ryan and his advisers spent hours calibrating how he would respond to certain questions, and how he would frame his arguments. When Ryan takes the stage here, listen to how he handles these five issues.
One of the main achievements of the Ryan budget and its rollout was Ryan’s ability to shift the Medicare debate away from the term “vouchers” and toward his preferred term for the reform, which he calls “premium support.” Mitt Romney’s campaign has adopted a similar position. Look for Ryan to carefully explain how future beneficiaries would be supported as they choose between private plans and traditional Medicare. If Vice President Biden starts to call the Romney proposal “vouchercare,” as he has done in the past, Ryan will likely push back hard. Ryan’s sweet spot is when liberals bash the GOP plan, because it gives him an opening to highlight how Democrats are ignoring Medicare’s looming bankruptcy. Ryan is aware that he will seem young to many viewers, so he wants to project seriousness, and for empathy, he’ll cite his mother, a Medicare beneficiary.
Ryan’s foreign-policy experience includes a few trips to the Middle East, defense-budget hearings, and a handful of speeches at think tanks about his worldview. For a Midwestern legislator, that’s hardly unusual, but it pales in comparison with Biden’s career, which includes a stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ryan has been working closely with Dan Senor, an official in the George W. Bush administration, to sharpen his foreign-policy knowledge, but don’t expect him to try to compete with Biden point by point. Instead, Ryan advisers say, the congressman wants to assail the Obama record. Ryan will almost certainly raise questions about the administration’s handling of the Libya attacks and its inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When Biden mentions the killing of Osama bin Laden, for example, look for Ryan to bring the discussion back to the present.
Paul Ryan’s national ascent began years ago, when in his mid-twenties he became a top adviser to Jack Kemp. But his rise as a player in the Obama years began in February 2010, when Ryan took on the president at a high-profile health-care summit. “This bill does not reduce deficits,” Ryan said, as the president grimaced. “Instead this bill adds a new health-care entitlement at a time when we have no idea how to pay for the entitlements we already have.” As Biden stands a few feet away, Ryan wants to dismantle the law that Biden once called “a big f—ing deal.” Look for him to criticize the “unaccountable bureaucrats” at the Independent Payment Advisory Board. Beyond hammering repeal, Ryan is also eager to promote the Romney-Ryan platform, which includes block-granting Medicaid and pooling coverage.
Ryan has always been a deficit hawk, but as a conservative who was mentored by Kemp, he’s also a member of the GOP’s supply-side wing. Ryan’s advisers expect the congressman to blend both of these perspectives, but he will have to tread lightly. During last week’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney delivered a pro-growth message, but he couched it in language that emphasized small-business enterprise, middle-class tax cuts, and tax reform. We can expect Ryan to be forceful, and in step with Romney’s approach. Early on, Ryan will probably have to push back against the Democrats’ claim that Romney would cut taxes by $5 trillion. But then he will try to pivot to the Obama administration’s economic record. His chief goal is to keep the conversation about Romney’s tax-cut plan connected to job creation, not to budget scores.
Since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden has celebrated his childhood in Scranton, Pa., a blue-collar city. It’s an elemental part of his political persona. He loves telling stories about his roots and particularly about his grandfather. Up against Ryan, who is considered technocratic and icy by many Democrats, Biden will likely bring up Scranton and its lessons as a way of winning over voters on more than policy. Ryan, however, is prepared to counteract Biden’s populist appeal with strategic stories about Janesville, Wis., his hometown. Ryan is ready to talk about his mother earning a college degree after his father died, and about his love for hunting and the Green Bay Packers. As much as the debate is about winning on points, Ryan knows that he has to do more than that; he must continue to introduce himself to the country.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.