Some opening thoughts on the upcoming vice presidential debate:
- Just as Mitt Romney benefited from low expectations in the first presidential debate, so too will Joe Biden likely walk away as the declared "victor" in this contest by simple virtue of being the perceived underdog. His main obstacle will be his chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease - i.e., he will need to avoid making any of the gaffes for which he has become particularly notorious during his vice presidency. Should he sidestep that potential pitfall, however, he is likely to impress by simple virtue of the other qualities which he possesses in spades, including his intelligence, sharp wit, and general persuasiveness as a debater (the man did spend more than half of his life as a Senator, after all).
- I anticipate that Paul Ryan will break even. Like Biden, he has a great deal of experience as a debater, and while his intellectual bona fides are a tad overrated (he is bright, but hardly an innovative conservative thinker in the line of a Ron Paul or Jack Kemp), he is smart enough that he should avoid embarrassing himself as GOP vice presidential candidates have been wont to do (think Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin). Because expectations for him aren't particularly high or low, it's unlikely that a great deal of attention will be paid to his performance one way or the other. The only significant challenge he'll have is that of not being painted as an extremist. One of Romney's triumphs in the first debate was the manner in which he sloughed off the aura of radicalism that Obama's campaign had effectively associated with him. Because Ryan has some genuinely controversial views (particularly on economic policy), he'll need to avoid making statements that could reinforce that image so soon after Romney managed to wriggle away from it.
- As a rule of thumb, vice presidential debates rarely have a major impact on the outcome of a presidential election. Even the most noteworthy case in which one candidate was routed - that of Dan Quayle being humiliated by Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 (the famous "You're no Jack Kennedy" quip was but one example) - didn't significantly help the front of the ticket that year (Michael Dukakis was decisively defeated by George H. W. Bush that year). This is because, no matter how the prospective vice presidents perform, debates are scheduled in such a way that they have always been followed by additional presidential exhibitions. At best, this winds up diminishing the potency of whatever impressions are left by the vice presidential contest; at worst, they're eliminated completely.
That last point notwithstanding ... while the chances are indeed slim that anyone will be thinking about the Biden-Ryan event on November 6th, there is a strong possibility that this will effect the momentum of the race for the next week. If Ryan is perceived as the clear winner, it will add fuel to the fire of Romney's growing strength, while if Biden is viewed as having won, it could stop or even begin to reverse that trend. Of course, if either candidate makes a spectacle of himself - or allows his opponent to demolish him, Bentsen-style - this could indeed shape the course of the election. After all, one of the reasons Bentsen was unable to really help the Democratic ticket in 1988 was because Dukakis committed major campaign errors in the following month. If Ryan "wins" and Obama is unable to recover his campaign, or if Biden "wins" and then Obama runs a smooth ship, tonight's debate could be an exception to the rule.