VP Debate: What the Candidates Must Do to Win

by Wendy Simmons | October 10, 2012 7:03 pm

[1]By all accounts, President Barack Obama bombed in the first presidential debate with his GOP challenger last week. The effect on the campaign has been palpable. Obama’s poll numbers have plummeted, his lead has evaporated and media outlets across the board have excoriated him.

Tomorrow night, Vice President Joe Biden and his possible successor, Representative Paul Ryan, will take the stage for the one and only vice-presidential debate. While these debates have historically been inconsequential, this time it’s different. Obama’s supporters are anxious to see if Biden can deliver the scathing attacks on the Romney/Ryan campaign that they believe should have come from the president last week.

As you are watching the VP debate, keep in mind what each man needs to accomplish on the stage in Danville, Kentucky.

 Joe Biden

The Vice-President has two big goals in the debate: to attack the Romney campaign on the lack of specificity and to highlight the flip-flopping of Mitt Romney. Both ought to be done easily.

Attack the lack of specifics

Paul Ryan is the darling of the Republican House majority, whose budget plan was endorsed by every GOP member of the House. It calls for major general spending and tax cuts that are not supported by any specific policy. Romney’s tax plan is to cut rates, paid for by limiting deductions and closing loopholes. Ryan has been quizzed on this recently, on Fox News of all places, and was unable to clarify any actual tax loopholes he might close.

Joe Biden needs to use every opportunity he has to press Ryan into something specific or highlight the fact that the numbers in the Romney plan do not add up. Obama tried, weakly, to do this last week with Mitt Romney. Romney’s response was simply that he was not proposing a $5 trillion tax cut; that his tax cut was revenue neutral.

However, Obama simply was not forceful enough in pointing out that lowering tax rates will either add to the deficit or require massive cuts in other parts of the budget. This is the simple analysis that the Tax Policy Center has already reported on quite clearly. Cutting rates and closing loopholes is a popular idea across the board, but if it were simple, it would have been done by now. The hard part of crafting legislation to achieve those ends is specifying which loopholes to close.

Remind voters that Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper

Republican voters have been concerned for a long time that Romney was not a die-hard conservative. He has been on a mission for a year to correct that impression. Romney staked out far-right positions during the GOP primary that contradicted even his own legislative record in Massachusetts.  He told one interviewer he was “severely conservative.” He chose Paul Ryan, the poster child of the far right wing of his party, as his running mate.

And then, in one debate and the week following, Romney effectively walked away from all of that. He now claims that he has no intention of cutting taxes for the wealthy, his health care plan does cover pre-existing conditions and he is not supporting any specific pro-life legislation. This must come as a shock to the conservative base. Biden should grab every opportunity to remind swing voters that Romney cannot be trusted and base GOP voters that he really is the moderate Mitt they had feared all along.

Paul Ryan

I also have three bits of advice for Ryan as he prepares for the Kentucky debate: don’t stumble, attack the stimulus and look out for yourself.

Don’t make a big mistake

Representative Ryan will arrive at this debate with a bit of wind at his back. This may be a double-edged sword, however. After Romney’s stellar performance last week in Denver, expectations have been raised for the campaign. Observers of the VP debate will be watching for a major stumble from Ryan. (Perhaps unfairly, the press and the public seem so used to Biden gaffes that they may be inoculated from them.) So the first thing Ryan needs to try to do is avoid making a big error that will suck up news coverage. He has never debated on the national stage before and it is hard to predict how he will handle the pressure of such an event.

Attack the Obama record generally and the stimulus specifically

When the Obama administration passed the stimulus package back in 2009, they gave Joe Biden the task of policing it — tracking the money and ensuring it was not being wasted. Regardless of the actual effect of the stimulus, which was positive, according to most economists, the public largely soured against it. Ryan should remind voters how much they hated the stimulus, how it didn’t work and that Biden was in charge of it.

Ryan will likely spend much of his time attacking the Obama administration but can peg the stimulus specifically to Biden.

Preserve your own political future

Joe Biden will likely be focusing on the controversial Ryan budget. Ryan needs to remind voters that Romney is the top of the ticket, not him. This should achieve dual purposes of deflecting attention from his more conservative agenda and avoid locking Ryan into positions he may regret later. Paul Ryan is a young and ambitious career politician. If he and Romney go down to defeat come November, the young congressman from Wisconsin will want to have preserved his brand.

The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.

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