What to Watch for As Joe Biden and Paul Ryan Square Off Thursday Night

Election '16

There's some interesting context as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan square off tonight for the second of four debates between the two campaigns.

Based on Ryan's voting record, New York Times number-cruncher Nate Silver finds Paul Ryan to be the most conservative member of Congress to be picked as a running mate since at least 1900, and he'll debate just as the Romney campaign is shaking that Etch-a-Sketch and making a dramatic dive for the center. (Perhaps the most significant result of Romney's win in Denver last week is that it eased the pressure coming from his right flank and allowed him, finally, to make that pivot.)

Ryan was always a risky choice because of the severity of his brand of conservatism, and his eponymous plan to reshape the  government into something like what it was before the New Deal. Earlier this year, Democratic operatives discovered something interesting about Paul Ryan's budget. The New York Times reported that when the details of his proposals were run past focus groups, they found that the plan is so cruel that voters simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”

We can expect Ryan to emulate Romney in the first debate, and insist that what he's spent years campaigning to achieve isn't a reflection of his true policy preferences. He will suggest that Biden is distorting his plans, and may also assure voters that he only sits at the bottom of the ticket and Romney would determine the agenda of his administration.

The outcome of the debate is likely to hinge on whether Biden can hang Ryan's past positions around his neck, or Ryan is able to dodge and wiggle away from the positions he's held during seven terms in the House of Representatives.

For his part, Biden enters the debate in the immediate aftermath of Mitt Romney's post-debate bump in the polls, and needs to have a strong performance to regain some momentum. Obama's actual performance wasn't that awful – a snap-poll of 500 undecided voters conducted by CBS at the end of the debate found that a majority thought it was either a draw or that Obama won – but the media narrative following it has been, and Biden needs to change the conversation.

Since the first debate, Romney has narrowed – and in some polls closed – the gap in support from women that Obama has enjoyed throughout the campaign. In a debate with Paul Ryan, Biden has an opportunity to regain ground with this group. Not only would the Ryan plan decimate the social safety net, but he co-authored an abortion ban that had no exceptions, not for the health or life of a pregnant woman, nor for instances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.

Biden, despite his reputation as a bumbling pol, is in fact a seasoned debater. We can expect him to come out swinging aggressively after Obama told a radio host that he had just been “too polite” in the first debate. Biden is much more comfortable sounding a populist tone than Obama, and with his blue-collar background, he is well-suited to paint Ryan as a self-loathing career public employee born into fortunate circumstances who went on to become a tool of the plutocracy.

Ryan has been known to lose his cool and get snippy when challenged, and that's something to watch for. But Ryan tells CNN that he has been rehearsing for this evening since he was selected for the ticket (he claimed that he was bringing the meticulous preparation he uses for bow-hunting to the process).

There will be fewer people watching this debate than there were for the first encounter between Romney and Obama, and the outcome is unlikely to move a lot of voters. But as far as the media discourse that follows, a Biden win shifts the momentum back to the Obama team, while a Ryan victory keeps the conversation focused on poor debates and falling poll numbers for the incumbent. It should be an interesting night.

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