The last time Joe Biden stepped onto a vice-presidential debate stage, he faced a challenge only George H. W. Walker had dealt with before: debating a woman in a nationally-televised debate.
And Sarah Palin proved an even bigger, more sudden, more dynamic political phenomenon than Geraldine Ferraro was in 1984. Since her debut, Obama’s allies had attacked Palin relentlessly, and the Alaska Governor had run into trouble after her interview with Katie Couric. Palin was a largely unknown quantity headed into the debate, and the only thing most Americans knew was that she was a mother of five and feisty. The expectations were heavy for Biden; he had been in the Senate for decades and spent his life arguing and talking; Palin had never been under such a withering, relentless spotlight.
The last thing Biden needed to do was come across as condescending, or snide, or obnoxious. Bush had run into a little trouble back in 1984, after he had been recorded saying, “I think we did kick a little ass last night.” (Bush and Ferraro discussed their debate in 2008; he said he had been warned about the dangers of inadvertently appearing overbearing or rude.)
So Biden, by and large, kept it simple. He didn’t go on the attack much. However, he described some alternate-universe history that almost no one in the press called him out on, because of the ongoing Palin obsession at that moment. Michael Totten wrote:
“When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.” Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.” [Emphasis added.]
What on Earth is he talking about? The United States and France may have kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon in an alternate universe, but nothing even remotely like that ever happened in this one.
The media’ obsession with all facets of Palin helped obscure Biden’s weak spots last time around. He won’t be able to count on it this time, not because the press is any less hostile to Republicans but because Paul Ryan consumes much less media oxygen.
Some Democrats may want Biden to come out of the blocks attacking relentlessly Thursday night. The Obama campaign brain trust may feel that their base has been left so shaken by Obama’s performance last week, that it needs to see a Democrat tearing apart his opponent as cruel, heartless, reckless, and so on.
But if Biden’s the designated attack dog of the Obama campaign, he’s also proven, time and again, to be a high-risk one. “Gonna put y’all back in chains!” “The middle class that’s been buried the last four years!” “How in the Lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes with these tax cuts?”
Obama has – or had? – deep reserves of favorability and personal likeability to help him weather the storms of daily politics. Judging from his favorable ratings, Biden doesn’t have it, and may never have had it. And as with the Lebanon hallucination above, Biden may… let’s say, misremember some of the finer points of the policies he’s defending or attacking. Sarah Palin, trying to get up to speed on every national issue under the sun, wasn’t going to call out Biden on getting past foreign policy wrong. But Paul Ryan might do just that if given the opportunity. And for the 69-year-old six-term senator to get corrected by the young guy… well, that would reinforce a whole lot of negative perceptions about Joe Biden – perhaps even serious questions as to whether Biden really is the right man to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
While the Obama campaign can ride out a contentious, tied Biden-Ryan debate or a boring Biden-Ryan debate, a bad Biden-Ryan debate would reinforce the suddenly pervasive perception of an incumbent campaign in a tailspin.
Biden can’t save Obama from the problems created by the first debate; only Obama can save himself – meaning there’s limited upside, and enormous downside, for the vice president to go out on that stage convinced he has to make magic happen, determined to swing for the fences.
The strange dynamic of Obama’s debate pratfall is that it can really only be addressed, and fixed, in his own two forthcoming debate performances. Voters feeling iffy, or newly skeptical about President Obama aren’t going to jump back on the bandwagon because the president has good rallies or a good commercials. Some significant chunk of the 70 million watched President Obama and recoiled, sensing that the president wasn’t all that interested in making the case for himself, his record, and his policies, seeming to believe the entire debate process was beneath him.