How Biden and Ryan stack up

Jay LaPrete/AP

When Joe Biden and Paul Ryan debate in Danville, Kentucky on October 11, it’ll be one of the more interesting moments in American politics and it will be the test for Paul Ryan.

It’ll be a big moment for the country, too: It’s the first time two Roman Catholic running mates have been on the ticket. (There’s not a WASP or a veteran on either ticket.)

For Ryan and Biden, it’ll be a meeting of two longtime creatures of Congress at a time when Congress has never been more disdained. Biden was elected senator in 1972 when he was just 29. He turned the constitutionally required 30 before he took his oath of office. Ryan was elected at 28. Each came of age on the Hill. Ryan was a congressional staffer before taking his southern Wisconsin seat. Neither would have a hard time navigating the maze of tunnels under the Hill. It’ll be a chance to prod and poke. The oldest GM assembly plant in the country is in Ryan’s hometown of Jamesville, Wisc. Can Biden resist crowing about GM’s comeback? Can Ryan resist a you-didn’t-build-it retort?

Both men are smart, amiable family types and the vice presidential attack role comes less easily to them than it did to, say, Spiro Agnew or Lyndon Johnson. Biden’s long-time friendship with John McCain and senatorial courtesy kept his attacks fairly muted in 2008 and there was enough uneasiness about throwing jabs at a woman, Sarah Palin, that Biden kept it relatively light in 2008. By the time they met, she was already falling flat in interviews with Katie Couric and the greatest danger Biden faced was that she’d exceed very low expectations. (She did.) Ryan has never had to show fangs in his House races. These are new circumstances and it’s likely to be different in Danville. Both men will smile but we’ll see a tougher side of each of them.

So what’ll happen? Expect Biden to not only be the defender of Barack Obama but also of the areas where he exercised the most influence. Biden has the most international experience of any of the four candidates and talking about administration successes overseas--getting out of Iraq, Bin Laden’s death, etc – lies squarely in his comfort zone. Ryan will surely try to show cred in this area, too, lamenting America not being tough on enough on Iran and too tough in Israel. But the Romney-Ryan ticket has less foreign policy experience than any in this century, it could be argued, making this a tough area for Ryan to negotiate.

The stimulus should be the most interesting. A central line of Republican attack is that the stimulus was wasted money that only added to the national debt, stymied the recovery, and funneled money to Democratic cronies. Biden will come armed with stories of schools and solar panels, railroads and roads, to make the case as Michael Grunwald does in his new book “The New, New Deal” that the stimulus was money well spent and essential to the country not slipping deeper into recession. Biden is bound to dig up an example from Danville itself or Ryan’s own district. Ryan will toss back unfortunate claims of “recovery summer.”

We don’t know yet how much of the campaign will be about the Ryan plan and its call for revamping Medicare and cutting taxes substantially. It’s a safe bet that Biden will use it as much as he can. It’s easy to picture him saying something along the lines of: “Look, you’re a good looking young fella. You got a beautiful family. But God love you, your ideas if they ever got implemented, would run over our seniors like a Mack truck.”  Ryan’s argument is likely to be: “Hey, we’ve got a plan. You’ve had your chance and only made it worse.”

For his part, expect Ryan to reference Biden’s “40 years” in Washington. The gap between Biden and Ryan is 27 years--greater than the gap between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in 1988. But neither Biden nor Ryan has ever been through anything quite like this.

The best part is that neither Ryan nor Biden is especially scripted. Both will try to hew to talking points but both have a certain Bulworth quality. They’re each unpredictable, which makes their matchup even more so.

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