Even though the office has been described as “not being worth a bucket of spit,” it might be worth paying attention to tonight’s debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Last Wednesday, it looked like the Democrats were heading towards a decisive triumph in the November election. No more. Mitt Romney’s smashing victory in the first presidential debate put him back in the game. At least one poll now actually has him winning the popular vote. The debates matter.
Democrats are complaining that Obama didn’t fight back against a confident and likeable Romney. Instead of calling him out on his far right policies, his flip-flops and his bending of the truth, the president looked sleepy and bored. By contrast, Romney looked presidential as he tacked towards the centre, away from the more right-wing positions that won him the Republican nomination.
Paul Ryan is a fine debater and a likeable man. He is also an acolyte of the libertarian novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, and an articulate advocate of a winner takes all society. As a politician known for his verbal stumbles, Joe Biden might be tempted to play it safe. That would be a tragic mistake. Ryan is on the record advocating policies on abortion, social security and Medicare that are deeply unpopular with most voters.
Americans like the Republicans’ rugged individualist rhetoric. At the same time, they like the existing entitlements that many Republicans, like Ryan, seek to dismantle. This debate is a chance for the Democrats to paint the Republicans as pawns of the top 1 per cent, enemies of the middle class. Obama didn’t, perhaps out of fear of appearing like an angry black man. If Biden chooses not to, I will worry not only about the result of this election, but also the policies that would be adopted in Obama’s second term.