VP debate: An epic non-event?

posted at 12:41 pm on October 10, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Tomorrow night, the American electorate will watch another in a series of four debates intended to help voters decide who should be the next President.  In this event, however, neither presidential candidate will be present.  Instead, the two running mates will discuss and debate policies and issues on national television for 90 minutes.  While that will no doubt provide much entertainment for the pundit class, will it move the needle for the election?

Politico’s Jonathan Martin thinks it might:

Vice presidential debates typically matter as much as vice presidential picks — which is to say not a lot — but a convergence of factors is raising the stakes on this week’s faceoff between Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden.

Looming most heavy over the clash in Kentucky is President Barack Obama’s remarkably weak debate performance last week, a showing that has given Republicans their first sense of hope in weeks and increased the pressure on Biden to get Democrats back on course. …

If “Gentleman Joe” took the stage four years ago, determined not to come off as patronizing or bullying Sarah Palin, it seems almost certain that Thursday will bring the appearance of “Scranton Joe,” the scrappy pol who’s never been afraid to throw a punch.

That’s probably true, although we’re a lot more likely to see Gaffemaster Joe, too — the one who helpfully explained that the middle class had been “buried the last four years,” while he and his boss occupied the White House.  Ramesh Ponnuru notes that while mainly discounting its impact, but predicts a walkover for Paul Ryan anyway:

The Democratic reaction to Obama’s debate loss may also point Biden in the wrong direction. Among liberals — and among some Democratic strategists, too — the prevailing view is that Obama lost because he didn’t call Romney on his outrageous lies, and especially because he didn’t draw a stark contrast on Medicare and Social Security. Obama even said the two candidates had a “similar position” on the second program. Democrats will be urging Biden to be more combative.

The vice president isn’t above demagogic attacks: In his convention speech, for example, he claimed “experts” had said that one of Romney’s tax proposals would create 800,000 jobs, “all of them overseas, all of them.” In fact, Biden was referring to a study by one expert, and it didn’t say what he claimed: It estimated 800,000 jobs would be created overseas, but it didn’t examine the impact domestically. Yet Biden also likes to be liked, and has tended to take his hardest shots before partisan audiences rather than in front of the Republicans he is criticizing.

And the consensus Democratic view that Obama was too passive and disengaged probably misunderstands why he lost the debate. The real problem was that he was less up to speed on the arguments and counterarguments than Romney was. If Biden internalizes the Democratic conventional wisdom, he will be more engaged than Obama was — but it won’t help unless he is also better informed. An amped-up yet inadequate response can come across as bluster.

Yes, but will it matter either way?  In my column today for The Week, I argue that running-mate debates are not game-changers in any sense:

In the end, though, this is merely an academic exercise. Voters don’t choose presidents on the basis of the bottom of the ticket. That point was made quite clearly in 1984, when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman on a major-party ticket, a move that generated mountains of praise — while Mondale went on to win only Minnesota in Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide. Four years later, Lloyd Bentsen humiliated Dan Quayle in a debate, while George H. W. Bush went on to thump Bentsen’s running mate Michael Dukakis by 315 electoral votes.  Sarah Palin briefly re-energized John McCain’s campaign in 2008 and held her own against Biden in the debate, but Obama sailed to victory nonetheless.

That means Team Obama may get an opportunity to finally stop talking about the last debate, but they almost certainly won’t win much from Thursday’s, either. Nor do the next two debates look promising for Obama. The next presidential debate will take place in a town-hall format, in which candidates normally pay more attention to the voters than each other. The final debate will focus on foreign policy, which has become a trap for Obama…

Even if Obama does well in these debates, though, the first impression has already been fixed from last week’s contest. Team Obama has made it stick all the more by constantly reminding everyone about how badly he did. Obama’s best chance to reverse the slide will be to make the case for his second term outside of the debate halls, rather than focus entirely on Romney as his campaign has done since May in an attempt to disqualify him in the mind of voters. That strategy evaporated in the thin air of Denver, and there won’t be any time left to revive it.

The point on foreign policy may be worth emphasizing.  Biden doesn’t have much expertise on budgetary matters, but was considered a Democratic eminence grise on foreign policy in 2008, and was chosen by Obama to shore up his credentials in that arena.  As recently as the Democratic convention, Biden and Obama made it clear that they intended to hit Romney and Ryan hard on this topic — until the Benghazi terrorist attack and the unbelievably clumsy and foolish attempt to cover it up.  Any discussion of this topic will allow Ryan to demand answers for the White House’s deceptions on the attack and their refusal to provide a proper level of security to a dangerous mission, as well as challenge the Obama/Biden claim that al-Qaeda is “on its heels.”

Making that more likely is the choice of moderator in this debate: Martha Raddatz, the chief foreign correspondent for ABC News.  However, Raddatz’ scholastic and personal connection to Barack Obama has raised questions about her impartiality in this debate already:

President Barack Obama was a guest at the 1991 wedding of ABC senior foreign correspondent and vice presidential debate moderator Martha Raddatz, The Daily Caller has learned. Obama and groom Julius Genachowski, whom Obama would later tap to head the Federal Communications Commission, were Harvard Law School classmates at the time and members of the Harvard Law Review. …

On Monday evening ABC spokesman David Ford grudgingly confirmed Obama’s attendance at the wedding, after shielding Raddatz in August by declining to comment when The Daily Caller first reported the story.

“This is absurd,” Ford said, in the same statement now circulated by ABC’s media allies on the left.

Obama, Ford wrote, “attended their wedding over two decades ago along with nearly the entire Law Review, many of whom went onto successful careers, including some in the Bush administration,” he said without providing a specific number of Harvard Law Review employees to verify the statement.

When pressed further on Tuesday for a specific number of Harvard Law Review employees in attendance at the wedding, Ford could offer none, despite circulating the same unverified approximation through sympathetic media outlets earlier that day in order to discredit The Daily Caller’s reporting.

Will Raddatz be fair in tomorrow night’s debate?  I’d guess that with this out the open, she’ll have to be.  In the end, though, it probably won’t matter much in the presidential election.  However, a tough exchange on Benghazi might make a difference in getting the rest of the media to start pressing harder for answers on the White House cover-up.

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