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Opinion

The veep peep: What to expect from the debate

First off, let’s get this out of the way: Thursday night’s vice presidential debate does not matter, in terms of deciding which presidential candidate will emerge victorious in November.

Vice presidential debates have never had much of an influence over the outcome of presidential races, even when a clear winner has emerged, although in the latter case they have enhanced or ruined the individual reputations of assorted veeps and veep wannabes. That’s why, although there certainly will be viewers wonky enough to want to hear the details of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s plans for Medicare or Vice President Joe Biden’s ideas about equitable taxation, most will probably tune in for the same reason they watch NASCAR races: In hopes that one of the two (and let’s face it, the big money is on Biden) will crash and burn spectacularly.

Heaven knows, fear of a Biden rhetoric malfunction has been keeping the Obama camp up at night for the last several months; there’s no other explanation for their apparent effort to keep the vice president, who would normally be seeking maximum exposure as the president’s attack dog during this time, under wraps. ABC News noted that Biden’s appearance at the debate will mark the first time since May that he has answered questions on national television. You may recall what happened in May: During an interview on a Sunday talk show, Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, a position that put him at odds with President Obama’s official policy at the time and made Obama look wishy-washy. Pundits roasted Biden and Obama alike; Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, “If Vice President Biden continues to make public appearances during this campaign, White House press secretary Jay Carney should be offered a membership in the janitors’ union.”

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Obama subsequently announced his endorsement of gay marriage, and later acknowledged that Biden had forced his hand. And then Biden all but vanished from the airwaves.

Despite Biden’s gaffe history, crash fans may not get their wish. He turned in a respectable debate performance against Sarah Palin in 2008, in which Palin emerged looking unprepared and ill-informed, which of course she was, while Biden didn’t do anything to hurt Obama’s campaign (but didn’t do much to help it either). Ryan is a different category of opponent than Palin, but this debate promises to be a shout-fest, and Biden can shout as well as anybody.

Why all the shouting? In part because of this debate’s format, and in part because of what happened during the first presidential debate last week. Obama’s performance was weighed in the balance by pollsters and pundits and found wanting, in large part because of his passivity. Seemingly in a bid to look presidential, or maybe just because his debating skills were rusty (or was it the altitude?), Obama allowed multiple questionable assertions by Republican opponent Mitt Romney to go unchallenged, even as Romney aggressively countered Obama’s attacks against him. There is little chance Biden will make the same mistake, nor will Ryan. But to successfully counter an attack, it helps to do what Romney did last week: ignore the moderator, speak over your time limit, interrupt your opponent and generally behave in ways your mom would spank you for if you weren’t running for the highest office in the land. With Biden and Ryan both hyped up on adrenaline and talking points, the only thing standing between these two men and a big-dog barking contest is the moderator.

TRANSCRIPT: First presidential debate

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The moderator for the vice presidential debate is Martha Raddatz.

Who?

Actually, Raddatz may not be as famous as, say, Jim Lehrer, but she is nonetheless a solid TV journalist with an impressive resume at first NPR and then ABC News. She has four Emmys and numerous other awards and is the author of a bestselling book, “The Long Road Home -- a Story of War and Family.” So she’s not a pushover -- like, say, Jim Lehrer. But can she be more successful at putting a leash on Ryan and Biden than Lehrer was at hushing Romney? It will be interesting to find out, but the odds are against her.

In part, that’s because the format she’s working with is more restrictive than the one used for the presidential debate. That contest’s format called for six 15-minute segments during which the moderator would ask a question, each candidate would have two minutes to respond, and the rest of the time would be used for discussion overseen by the moderator. But Lehrer lost control almost from the get-go, resulting in a debate in which whoever was loudest got to talk the longest, and by the time the sixth planned segment arrived, the time was used up. The vice presidential debate will be even tougher to keep on schedule because its format calls for nine 10-minute segments. Biden can barely finish rhapsodizing about his Scranton, Pa., upbringing in 10 minutes, let alone tell us how many seniors will be processed into Soylent Green if Ryan gets his way on Medicare. Obviously, you don’t have to stick to the format to have an entertaining or informative debate; it’s just that once the moderator has lost control of the format, she’s likely to lose control of everything else.

Meanwhile, among the interesting things to watch will be whether Ryan, who was undoubtedly chosen as  running mate to shore up Romney’s shaky reputation with hard-right conservatives, will tack to the left to the extent that Romney did during his debate with Obama. (“I like government regulation! I’m not going to cut taxes on the rich!”) Vice presidential candidates almost never advocate positions that contrast with those of the guy at the top of the ticket, but to appeal to the center a la Romney would defeat Ryan’s entire purpose. It’s an interesting strategic dilemma, but I suspect the pollsters and political specialists on Romney’s team have already worked out a solution, and I’m afraid it’s going to involve giving as few specifics in as many patriotic words as humanly possible.

Biden’s job, meanwhile, will be to avoid doing anything embarrassing while trying to force Ryan to give the details he’d rather avoid. Both, meanwhile, will be focused on rapidly countering any accusation made by the other.

Should be ... well, if not fun, at least the topic of some entertaining rants to one’s Facebook friends.

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