Ronald Reagan’s media adviser, Mike Deaver, once said television is 85% how you look, 10% how you sound, and 5% what you actually say.
I don’t know if the percentages are exactly right, but I know debates (and make no mistake, debates are TV events) are measured by style and substance. So before Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, let’s take a look at both.
Biden: The Good Ol’ Fighter
Here is President Obama’s advice to Joe Biden for tonight’s debate: “Joe just needs to be Joe.” That’s exactly who Biden couldn’t be in 2008. Biden is a good ol’ boy and an attack dog. But four years ago, he couldn’t be overly aggressive with Sarah Palin. It never looks good to beat up on a woman. And when we overheard Palin ask Biden during the handshake, “Can I call you Joe?” she won the common-man vote. Tonight’s debate will be different.
Biden can out-good-ol-boy Ryan. He’ll pepper enough “y’alls” and “I’m serious now” into a conversation to make you feel like he’s sitting on your couch. And this moment is made for Biden. You can almost hear him pleading, “Put me in, coach.”
The responsibility is on Biden to not only aggressively challenge Ryan in a way that Obama did not challenge Mitt Romney, but also to regain the lead. Biden just has to be careful not to be overly aggressive and come off as “crazy-ol’-Joe”.
Ryan: The Serious Man
Whether responding to Biden’s attacks or challenging the administration’s record, Ryan needs to come off as a serious leader. He should have no problem offsetting his youthful appearance with wonky facts, figures and policy. The risk, though, is that he comes off as a nerd or a weasel.
We haven’t seen Ryan in a debate, but we have seen him challenge Obama during the health care summit, for example, and he can do it in a respectful and serious way. If Biden overplays his hand and appears too aggressive or too folksy, Ryan will look like a serious alternative.
During last week’s debate, Michael Moore tweeted a list of phrases he didn’t hear from Obama, including: 47%, Bain Capital, flip-flop, Bush, Detroit and women. Biden is somewhere backstage right now mouthing these words to himself.
He will try to paint Ryan — and by extension Romney — as a far right ideologue who loves Ayn Rand and tax cuts, but hates women and old people. He’ll point to Ryan’s voting record on abortion. He’ll point to Ryan’s reform proposal and say Ryan “wants to end Medicare as we know it.” He’ll talk about auto bailouts, contraception, and “lies.”
Much to Moore’s delight, it will all begin to sound like the Democratic National Convention. The problem is the country is not as liberal as the DNC speaker’s podium or Moore.
The night will be all about specifics for Ryan. He will push before the audience specifics on the country’s economic troubles, such as the statistic that Americans have lost 40% of their wealth. He will then push Biden on the administration’s economic policies.
But Ryan won’t just be asking for specifics, he’ll have to provide them as well. Obama didn’t ask candidate Romney what tax loopholes he proposed closing to offset his tax cut. Biden will ask Ryan. Obama didn’t ask Romney how he proposes to cover pre-existing conditions if Obamacare is repealed. Biden will ask Ryan. And Ryan better be ready with specifics.
85-10-5? Adjust the percentages however you like. But this is why many people think Thursday night's VP debate will have more style and substance than the presidential one.