By Fareed Zakaria
The conventional wisdom following last week’s presidential debate was that President Obama performed badly. I think that’s a fair reflection of what happened. It is still inexplicable to me why the president was so passive, why he did not bring up issues such as Romney’s 47 percent comment or the auto bailout or explain the popular provisions in the Obama health care bill. But for whatever reason, perform badly he did.
But the lessons for Joe Biden – as he thinks about his upcoming debate with Paul Ryan – derive less from watching Obama than from watching Romney. Romney had one of the best performances I can remember watching in a presidential debate ever – it was punchy, intelligent, empathetic. There is no question there were substantive problems, most notably the fact that Romney’s tax plan simply doesn’t add up – he cannot do a 20 percent tax rate cut while also retaining all the big deductions for most people without massively adding to the deficit. He certainly can’t do it while also promising to maintain Medicare and Social Security as is for current retirees. But Romney was good enough that he was able to convincingly argue that 2 plus 2 equals 5.
Ryan is like Romney in one sense, and this is a very different Republican team to the kind Democrats are used to facing. For the last several decades, the Democrats have been up against Republican politicians who had a certain resonance with the country, but were not really policy wonks. Instead, it was often the Democrats who were smart at policy – it was Democrats who understood the fine details. They would find themselves up against Republicans whose strengths were different – a rhetorical gift or a likeability factor. Think about Ronald Reagan, for example. Or take George W. Bush. Even George H. W. Bush and John McCain seemed inarticulate or uncomfortable when dealing with specific policy issues.
This time, you have a Republican ticket that is steeped in public policy – and knows how to articulate ideas. Romney’s entire training in the private sector primes him for these kinds of debates. After all, what do management consultants do? They provide crisp, compelling presentations on what a problem is and what their solution would be.
Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is comfortable with detailed policy discussions and is used to defending his ideas in Congress and in the media and coping with back and forth questioning on these issues.
Obama and Biden on the other hand have been in their respective presidential and vice presidential bubbles for the last four years and have simply not had to defend their positions in the same way – they are more used to staff meetings (over which they preside), campaign rallies (where they meet adoring crowds) or fundraisers (where they meet adoring donors).
If Vice President Biden wants to improve on the president’s performance last week and reenergize a dispirited Democrat base, he will need to recognize that the Republican ticket he is facing is quite different – and in this sense better – than virtually any before.