Old hand to fight it out with young gun in VP debate


US VICE-president Joe Biden jumped out from behind the bushes, yelling and firing on the journalists. His weapon was a plastic machine gun squirting water. The occasion was “Biden Bash”, an annual summer picnic the veep holds for the Washington press corps on the grounds of his official residence. Biden’s victims fired back with water pistols.

US president Barack Obama has been known to play golf with a New York Times columnist. Mitt Romney gave a birthday cake to a Los Angeles Times correspondent. But neither would be caught dead horsing around with water pistols.

Biden and Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee for the Republican Party, are more colourful than either of their presidential running mates. They will debate each other for the first and only time tomorrow night in Kentucky.

Ryan allegedly shoots deer with a bow and arrow, catches catfish with his bare hands and follows the P90X Extreme exercise and diet regimen.

Despite the 27 years that separate the youngest and eldest candidates on the November 6th presidential ballot, there is a kind of symmetry between Ryan (42) and Biden (69). Ryan was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 28; Biden was elected to the Senate at 29. Both talk about the tragedies that marked their lives: the death of Ryan’s father from a heart attack when Ryan was 16; the car crash that killed Biden’s first wife and infant daughter at Christmas in 1972.

Both men are deemed to have the common touch. Ryan is heir to a construction fortune in Wisconsin, but Biden is the genuine article: a working-class boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Twenty-seven per cent of the electorate in the last two elections were Catholic. Romney and Obama hope their Irish-American Catholic running mates – from opposite sides of the rift between conservative and liberal wings of the church – can “deliver” Catholics as well as the white working class.

Chastened by Obama’s poor debate performance on October 3rd, Democrats also hope Biden will come out shooting tomorrow night. Fifty-five per cent of respondents in a CNN poll said they believed Ryan would win the debate; 39 per cent said Biden.

Old-timers warn not to underestimate Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate and stood twice for president. Biden oversaw the 2009 economic stimulus, brokered the powersharing agreement in Iraq and has been a major influence on Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. He invented the bumper-sticker slogan: “Bin Laden is dead and Detroit is alive.”

This is Ryan’s first national debate. “I expect the vice-president to come at me like a cannonball,” he told the conservative Weekly Standard.

Biden has been watching videos of Ryan’s interviews and speeches, and reading Young Guns, the book Ryan co-authored.

Democrats do not understand why Obama did not mention Romney’s “47 per cent video” last week. As part of his debate preparation, Biden has probably watched Ryan’s “30 per cent video”, recorded at a conservative gala last year and just brought to light by the Huffington Post. Six months before Romney’s remarks, Ryan lamented that 30 per cent of the country “want the welfare state” and no longer believe in the American dream. “Before too long, we could become a society where the net majority of Americans are takers, not makers,” Ryan warned.

Biden stands out as the warmest of the four candidates. He is intensely physical on the campaign trail, keeping an arm around a supporter for minutes or holding on to a voter’s hand long after the handshake is over.

Last May, Biden “got out a little over his skis” – Obama’s words – by expressing his support for same-sex marriage, thus forcing the president to take a stand too. In August, Biden provoked an outcry among Republicans for telling a racially mixed rally in Virginia that Romney and conservatives “want to put y’all back in chains” by repealing banking regulations.

Biden was repeating the oft-stated Democratic belief that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class when he made another gaffe last week. “How can they justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years?” he asked.

Ryan seized on the comment, saying: “Of course the middle class is being buried . . . they’re being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”

Ryan has been caught out for hypocrisy. In his Republican convention speech he blamed Obama for a factory closure that occurred under George W Bush, reproached Obama for cuts to Medicare that Ryan had himself advocated, and criticised the president for failing to carry out deficit-cutting recommendations that he had opposed.

Ryan is best known for his 2010 “Path to Prosperity” draft budget, which became the “Road Map for America’s Future” and is now known as the Ryan Plan. Ryan originally proposed raising the retirement age to 70 and postponing Medicare eligibility to 69. He wanted to eliminate corporate income tax, inheritance tax and taxes on dividends, interest and capital gains. He would have capped income tax at 25 per cent, even for the wealthiest, and imposed an 8.5 per cent consumption tax that would have been devastating for the poor.

Romney chose Ryan as running mate because he was a bridge to the Republican Party’s conservative base. But as Romney has shifted towards the centre, he has all but silenced Ryan. Unlike Romney, Ryan had staked his career on authenticity. Tomorrow night, Biden is likely to hold his vice-presidential rival to his original conservative ideals. Will Ryan meld to Romney’s new moderation? Or will the “young gun” stick to his ideological guns?