Expectations High For Paul Ryan Ahead Of Debate

Expectations are high for Paul Ryan heading in to Thursday's Vice-Presidential debate. That's not necessarily a good thing.

With the Vice-Presidential debate only four days away, there are a lot of people expecting Paul Ryan to perform very well:

Conservatives have been licking their chops in anticipation of a debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden ever since Ryan was announced as the Republican vice presidential candidate. After GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate, the pressure is on Ryan to maintain the momentum, and many on the right don’t think that will be difficult.

Confidence in Ryan’s intellect is matched only by a sense that the gaffe-prone vice president can’t be taken seriously. “Ryan is going to be a great, articulate spokesperson out there. He is going to wipe up the floor with Biden in the debates,” Republican strategist Ed Rollins told Fox News this summer. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said of Biden: “I think the vice president of the United States has become a laugh line on late-night television.”

Biden’s reputation took another hit this past week, when he told a campaign crowd that the middle class has been “buried” during the four years of President Obama’s leadership. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, hopped on the phone with reporters to declare, “Vice President Biden finally got something right.” The latest CNN/ORC International poll found that among likely voters, 55 percent think Ryan is likely to do a better job in the debate than Biden. Only 39 percent gave Biden the advantage.

But Biden’s no fool, and the sky-high expectations for Ryan could set him up for failure. The House Budget Commmittee chairman fromWisconsin may be smart, but he struggles to give policy specifics when pressed by journalists. Biden may make clumsy remarks, but he’s a seasoned debater, with a gut connection to the middle-class voters who’d be hit by budget cuts Ryan has proposed.

The vice president is “a really knowledgeable debater,” said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, host of The War Room on Current TV and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s stand-in during Biden’s 2008 debate prep.


Ryan’s reputation as an “intellectual policy wonk” carries real vulnerabilities, said Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. If Biden “can catch him in an error, he’ll be able to dislodge the dominant narrative about Ryan,” she said.

For a self-described “numbers guy,” Ryan can be oddly hazy on specifics, analysts noted. In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, Ryan wouldn’t say how much the GOP ticket’s proposed tax cuts would cost, just that they’d be paid for by eliminating loopholes in the tax code. “You haven’t given me the math,” Wallace prodded.

“Well, I don’t have the ti—It would take me too long to give you all of the math,” Ryan said. “But let me say it this way: You can lower tax rates by 20 percent across the board by closing loopholes and still have preferences for the middle class.”

“What intellectual policy wonks are supposed to be able to do is clearly communicate policy alternatives,” Jamieson said.

The Obama campaign has been equally hazy on many of their policy specifics, Jamieson said. But Biden isn’t expected to be as adept at explaining policy as Ryan.

It’s also worth noting that this will be Ryan’s first debate on a national stage, in the middle of his first campaign outside of his Wisconsin Congressional District. While Republicans have generally given Ryan high marks for his speech at the Republican National Convention, other observers noted at the time that he seemed nervous to be on such a big stage for the first time in his political career. Similar emotions at the debate could be a problem for him.

The bigger problem, though, is the fact that so many people on the right have been building up Ryan to the point where, arguably, even if his does his best his may end up disappointing people. From the moment that Mitt Romney named him as his running mate, conservatives have been looking forward to this debate with open glee. Ryan, they assume, will be able easily ride over a Vice-President that they see as mostly idiotic. Maybe that’s the case, but when you start building up the expectations for a candidate you set that candidate up to disappoint if they don’t live up to them. Sarah Palin was deemed to have done fairly well in her 2008 debate with Biden mostly because the expectations for so low that she couldn’t have possibly done any worse than what people were expecting. In Ryan’s case, if he walks onto the debate stage with sky high expectations, he’s basically being set up to be designated the “loser” of the debate.

Vice-President Biden, of course, comes into the debate with expectations of his own. Over the course of his four years in office, he’s built up a reputation, far or not, as someone who is gaffe-prone and likely to say the wrong thing in a political situation. After all, it’s not every politician who would even think about letting a picture like this make it into the national media. At the same time, though, I think conservatives tend to underestimate Joe Biden in many respects. Gaffes or not, he’s generally very well received in working class communities in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states in the Midwest that are quite important to this election. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, he was widely seen as being a far better debater than Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John Edwards even though his campaign never exactly took off.  Republicans who underestimate him do so at their peril.

On the whole, there’s very little evidence that Vice-Presidential debates have much of an impact on the race as a whole. George H.W. Bush was widely panned for what many thought were overly aggressive attacks on Geraldine Ferraro in their 1984 debate, but the Reagan-Bush ticket ended up winning in one of the biggest landslides in American history. Lloyd Bentsen absolutely clobbered Dan Quayle in their 1988 debate, but the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket ended up losing by more than 300 Electoral Votes and eight percentage points in the Popular Vote. Of course, with an election this close, things could end up being a little different. Dick Cheney clearly out debated John Edwards in their 2004 encounter, for example, and it may be the case that this was one of the reasons that the Bush-Cheney ticket was able to pull off a narrow victory. Could something similar happen this year? Perhaps. At the very least, if the Vice-President does well on Thursday it may help stop whatever slide the ticket is experiencing in the polls, and a solid Ryan win could keep the momentum from Romney’s good debate performance last week going. As always, we’ll have to wait and see.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    I hope Ryan learns how to act his age. He seems to have a “young’un” shtick he plays for older audiences which I find very annoying.

  2. jan says:

    I think both Biden and Ryan will so about the same, and be individually touted by their own parties as having won.

    Ryan brings with him believability and adroitness in knowing budgetary numbers. Biden has the ‘lovable’ Uncle’ image embossed on his forehead. Biden will more than likely attack Romney more than Ryan, making up for whatever the president was criticized for not doing last Wednesday. Ryan will then be put to the task of defending Romney. Not much will be definitively accomplished, but maybe a few laugh lines here and there, and lots of teeth flashing by Biden (he has a great smile).

    The next debate on the 16th, the town hall one, is what will draw the audience once again. This time people will have a lot higher expectations of Romney. And, if he is the least bit off his game he will be deemed the loser by the press and the dems. OTOH, Obama will come in as the ‘underdog,’ and if he ups his game, even by a hair, the press and dems will rejoice that ‘the One’ has returned and all is well again.

    It all depends on what the public wants to buy from these debates.

  3. PJ says:

    I think Biden is way more likely to call out his opponent for lying during a debate than Obama is.
    And I doubt that Ryan will lie any less than Romney did.
    Question is how the media would react to Biden calling Ryan a liar.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    Biden is much less gaff prone when he is in a structured situation like a debate.

  5. jan says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Biden is much less gaff prone when he is in a structured situation like a debate.

    That’s what people have said about Biden. Plus he is taking 6 days off from campaigning to prepare for this debate. He will do ok, and so will Ryan. And, partisans will think what they will as to who won. But, I doubt little will change in the race’s overall dynamics.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    the press and dems will rejoice that ‘the One’ has returned and all is well again.

    Why is it conservatives are the only ones who ever refer to Obama as ‘the One’? Do they have a messiah complex or what?

  7. anjin-san says:

    adroitness in knowing budgetary numbers

    It will be interesting to see if he can find time to explain them to us…

  8. john personna says:


    Question is how the media would react to Biden calling Ryan a liar.

    It is the battle of the day:

    Gingrich Concedes Romney Wasn’t Honest About His Tax Plan During Debate

    Mary Matalin Calls Paul Krugman A ‘Liar’ For Telling The Truth

    … perhaps the real battle of the 2012 election cycle, fact versus belief based politics.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    … perhaps the real battle of the 2012 election cycle, fact versus belief based politics.

    If it is, we are toast.

  10. Me Me Me says:

    The most interesting thing about Paul Ryan is that Obama/Biden are drinking his milkshake in Wisconsin.

  11. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares? I guess writing about irrelevant debates of irrelevant candidates gives wonks and wannabes something to do.

    However, instead of spending the next month pretending the presidential election is competitive and then pretending that the Republicans party could do anything different to actually win a presidential election, why not skip straight to January 2013 and start writing about what will be different about the second Obama term versus the first term.

    Who replaces Hillary Clinton at the State Department is more relevant to policy and governance than what all the Republicans combined are doing or saying. Why not write from that point of view?

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Do they have a messiah complex or what?

    Well of course they do…they are still waiting for the second coming of Reagan…

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    @An Interested Party: And ironically if Reagan did come they wouldn’t even like and immediately brand him a RINO.

  14. GreenForest says:

    Biden will eventually show his true disposition by becoming rude, crude and uncivil. Ryan will be viewed as young, intelligent & polite.

  15. jan says:

    @john personna:

    Think Progress says that Matalin called Krugman out for telling the truth. However, Newsbusters sees that exchange entirely differently…as did most of the people at the discussion table.

    As for Gingrich’s comment, another Think Progress link, it was cut off at a point where Gingrich was saying “I think it’s clearly changed….” but, since he didn’t finish his sentence, Think Progress provided it’s own translation. This was similar to the leftist Mother Jones recording of Romney’s comment about Pakistan, which cut out at a point leaving a misinterpreted dangling sentence, that didn’t transmit the entirety of Romney’s remarks.

  16. Fiona says:


    Matalin was lying (what else is new) and Krugman was correct. Of course Newsbusters sees it differently; they’re conservative shills with little interest in the truth.

    Newt was also telling the truth (for a change) but added that the Mittster’s sudden revision of his tax plan was ” good politics.”

    Ryan brings with him believability and adroitness in knowing budgetary numbers.

    Bwah hah hah. Ryan’s RNC speech was riddled with lies. He couldn’t be bothered to explain the math behind Romney’s tax cut to Chris Wallace on Romney-friendly Fox News. And his budget plans are based on false assumptions about economic growth that make them untenable.

    I’ve got to hand it to you Jan–you never let reality get in your way.

  17. EMRVentures says:

    I’ve never seen Biden as “gaffe-prone” so much as prone to speak freely. A Kinsley-gaffer, as it were. After Wednesday’s somnolent performance, I would hope the election team sends him out to take the offensive. Ryan will present a target-rich environment with his bullshit — there’s no way he can’t — and Biden is good at the regular-guy, I-ride-Amtrak thing.

  18. jan says:


    I’ve got to hand it to you Jan–you never let reality get in your way.

    I actually respect many of your posts. But, when you talk about letting reality getting in the way of another post, aren’t you being just a little supercilious?

    After all, while Newsbusters may lean right, Think Progress is a total leftist ‘shill.’ So, what’s your point? There are apparently different POVs and perspectives in this country. Make room for them, Fiona, without branishing so much partisanship as to imply that ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, so go stick it.’

  19. Dazedandconfused says:

    I’ll be tuning into this one if I can. Are these two a couple of characters, or what?

    High comedic potential.

  20. wr says:

    @jan: ” Make room for them, Fiona, without branishing so much partisanship as to imply that ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, so go stick it.’ ”

    I hope you were giggling your head off when you typed that, because if you didn’t think you were being outrageously funny, you are one of the most seriously self-deluded people I’ve ever come across.

  21. Fiona says:

    Oh Jan–I don’t frequent Think Progress. Why woul i read somebody else’s spin on something I can watch for myself? What Krugman said about Romney’s “plan” for pre-existing conditions was true. His own campaign advisor walked Romney’s comments back during the post-debate spin. So I guess Romney either misspoke or lied during the debate (put your own spin on it).

    Of course, there are different viewpoints on politics. Duh. But there’s also a difference between fact and opinion. Newsbusters = opinion.

  22. I love everyone underestimating someone who’s been in the Senate for about 40 years, and is a Vice President. Biden is BRILLIANTLY intelligent. By all means, GOP, underestimate him.

  23. Geek, Esq. says:

    Democrats and Republicans have to agree that having Reince Priebus describe Biden as a “gifted orator” is the most laughworthy piece of dishonest spin this campaign cycle. Come on, dude.

  24. john personna says:


    Fiona and others have answered pretty well, but to be honest I’m confused by the sheer volume of health care lies at this point. Why don’t you, short and sweet, tell me which you believe:

    – that Romney has an actual plan for pre-existing conditions?
    – that he doesn’t just have a “plan” that it is the states’ deal with or not?
    – that Ryan’s voucher is not a voucher?

    Did I miss any?

  25. anjin-san says:

    His own campaign advisor walked Romney’s comments back during the post-debate spin.

    On another thread, Jan dismissed the on the record remarks by a Romney staffer as a “gossipy rumor” that was being pushed by TPM.

  26. Horshu says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It’s not a Messiah complex; it’s an insult complex…very difficult for some of them to make any kind of point without throwing out some kind of ad hoc insult, as it somehow improves their point.

  27. David M says:

    @john personna:

    At this point I’m pretty sure Jan’s only substantive objection to Obamacare is that it was implemented by Democrats. Romneycare is better because it is bipartisan, not anything to do with policy.