WASHINGTON — Paul Ryan looked uncomfortable. After slamming Joe Biden for his role in passing an $800 billion stimulus package, Ryan found himself quickly cornered by Biden on the vice presidential debate stage in 2012.
“He sent me two letters saying, ‘By the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?’” said Biden, the incumbent at the time, gesturing at his much younger opponent.
Ryan admitted to the request to steer money to his home state, offering a stiff smile and explaining that he was simply advocating for his congressional constituents.
Biden cackled derisively. “I love that,” he said, in a bless-your-heart tone.
It was one of several exchanges where an aggressive and prepared Biden bested his Republican rival eight years ago when the Obama reelection campaign badly needed a win. And it’s a performance that suggests the 77-year-old former vice president, who rarely shined in a primary debate this past year, has the capacity to dominate a debate rival despite uneven performances in the past.
The debate stage has not always been kind to Biden. It’s the place where his 1988 presidential run began to fall apart, after he quoted a British politician without attribution in his closing remarks, and where he often struggled to get noticed when he ran again in 2007, drowned out by some of his more charismatic rivals.
But once he was tapped as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, Biden delivered two clutch debate performances —against Alaska Governor Sarah Palin that fall and Representative Ryan four years later — that showed considerable skill and an undeniable versatility. It’s that version of Biden Democrats are hoping will show up on Tuesday night, when he faces off against President Trump in Cleveland for the first of three debates.
“He’s underestimated,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former top adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential run. “He handled himself well in 2008 and in 2012 against very different kinds of candidates.”
Biden never delivered a knock-out debate performance in the 2020 Democratic primaries, occasionally rambling or cutting himself off on the stage and fueling speculation that he lacked the stamina and sharpness to take on Trump. But running a gantlet of 11 debates over nine months, he managed to stave off attacks from rivals and maintain his position as the field’s leader.
Even Trump, 74, appears to be trying to figure out which Biden will show up on Tuesday: the debater who laughed off Ryan, or the one who fumbled his candidacy 30 years ago. “His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly,” Trump tweeted on Monday.
Of course, none of Biden’s previous performances could prepare him to debate Trump, who has said he plans to attack Biden’s son, Hunter, and spent Monday tweeting about how he believes Biden should take a drug test, attempting to launch another conspiracy theory about his rival. In 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton, Trump referred to her as “the devil,” said her heart is full of “hate,” and threatened to imprison her if he was elected.
Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 28, 2020
Despite decades in the political arena, Biden has never faced an opponent so ready and willing to launch a fusillade of nasty attacks on the debate stage.
“I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl with this guy,” Biden said at a fund-raiser this month. “I think I know how to handle bullies. We’ll find out.”
While nothing in Biden’s political past compares to the stakes Tuesday night, his debate against Ryan came during a high-pressure moment for Obama’s reelection campaign.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had dominated his first debate with Obama the week before, providing the former Massachusetts governor with much-needed momentum just a month before Election Day. Some polls showed Romney had pulled ahead of Obama.
“We were riding on a high heading into the VP debate,” recalled Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign aide. “Biden had committed a number of gaffes over the course of the campaign and we expected he would make some mistake or do something hilariously absurd during the debate.”
Instead, “he had a very solid debate performance,” Williams said.
Crisply crystallizing Ryan’s hypocrisy by bringing up his request for money from the stimulus package helped Biden win a debate during a time when the Obama campaign needed the boost — and upset the effort by Romney’s team to paint Biden as a gaffe-prone bumbler.
It was also an aggressive performance, a stark departure from Biden’s more restrained approach in his 2008 debate against Palin. He heeded advisers who warned him not to come across as patronizing to Palin, who was the second woman on a major party presidential ticket.
In 2012, Biden interrupted Ryan dozens of times and laughed mockingly at many of his responses. “Oh now you’re Jack Kennedy!” he joked when Ryan invoked the famous Democratic president’s name in support of one of his policy proposals. But he also cooled things down by calling Ryan his “friend” and patting him on the back.
Biden had prepped extensively for the moment. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, then a lawmaker on the House Budget Committee with Ryan, played Ryan in mock debates. Biden was focused on learning Ryan’s policy positions and being ready to poke holes in them, or point out hypocrisies as he did with the stimulus letter.
This time around, Van Hollen said, there’s no point in engaging in subtle point scoring.
“Traditionally in a debate, catching your opponent in a big policy flip flop or changing their position or telling a lie is an important moment,” Van Hollen said. “But Donald Trump’s a different ballgame. There’s no real point in researching every lie that Donald Trump might get caught in because he lies multiple times every day.”
Instead, Van Hollen said, Biden should focus on getting his own message across while contrasting his character with Trump’s — not fact-checking or brawling with his opponent.
“No one can dig deeper into the muck than Donald Trump, so there’s no point in trying to compete with him,” Van Hollen said.
But that doesn’t mean Biden will not respond at all to Trump’s attacks, said Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a longtime Biden ally.
“I think you’ll be surprised how strongly he’ll counterpunch when Trump will take some shots at him,” Rendell said.
In 2012, Biden benefited from low expectations going into his debate, in part because of extensive coverage of missteps he made in interviews or when talking to voters, gaffes that the Romney campaign were quick to blast out. This time, Biden also benefits from low expectations, after the president and his campaign have branded him “Sleepy Joe” and argued he is slow-witted.
“The Trump campaign has spent the last several months making the case that he’s mentally deficient,” Williams said. “That doesn’t raise the bar for Biden, it lowers it and it gives him the chance to exceed expectations with a solid performance.”