Now that Obama has made the first 3:00 AM decision of his “inevitable” presidency, McCain must begin considering who should sit across from Joe Biden during the vice presidential candidates’ debate. That event, always a bit more like a Sunday talk show than a contest for office, has had its share of memorable moments over the years: Lloyd Bentsen’s emasculation of Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy,” Admiral Stockdale’s existential self-inquiry and hearing aid malfunction, and Bob Dole’s soliloquy on the toll of the 20th century’s “Democrat wars.”
While VP candidates certainly have a role to play in the campaign beyond this single event, it’s equaled perhaps only by the party convention as a forum for the Vice Presidential candidate to make an impact on the race. Biden is a tested, unpredictable, longwinded, and sometimes irascible debater who certainly has an extensive knowledge on the issues, particularly foreign policy. So let’s consider how McCain’s potential running mates might match up against him:
- Pros: If Biden tends to draw working-class white Democrats into the Obama fold, Lieberman can draw them right back. Their backgrounds in the Senate are so similar, it almost makes the VP contest moot and re-centers the debate on the presidential candidates — one that McCain was winning before the Biden pick. Total contrast in styles, with Lieberman a slower, more intellectual speaker whose wit is more wry than biting. It would be a fascinating debate to plan for…
- Cons: …but not at all fascinating to watch, because it can’t and won’t be a debate. They would agree on almost everything of substance, and it would harshly magnify for all Republicans that McCain has picked a mostly-liberal Democrat as next-in-line to the presidency. No voter could conceivably watch this debate and think, wow, I have to vote Republican, because the Republican brand would be entirely absent. The mutual congratulations and senatorial courtesies flying around the hall would induce catatonia in even the most die-hard political junkies.
- Pros: Ridge can match Biden’s experience and knowledge of the issues fairly closely, and he far surpasses Biden in executive experience – Ridge would surely bring that up. Where Biden can be wordy and expansive, Ridge tends to be more precise and disciplined, at least in the appearances I’ve seen. Ridge’s more moderate stances on some social issues would push the debate toward foreign policy and the economy — where this year’s election will be won or lost. If voters like Obama’s pick of Biden because he can “challenge” Obama, Ridge can perform the same role in a McCain White House.
- Cons: As with Lieberman, only less so, these two candidates would be incapable of clash on a range of social issues, reminding religious conservatives that they are being left out in the cold this cycle. Biden’s position on the Judiciary Committee makes him the perfect attack dog against Ridge’s stint as Homeland Security Secretary, a tie to the Bush Administration that can only serve to hurt McCain. Ridge’s calmer, more business-like demeanor could come across as colorless when displayed next to Biden’s more effusive and freewheeling style, making Biden more likable and emphasizing the Democrats’ edge as the nice guys in the race.
- Pros: I’ve seen less of Pawlenty than most of these guys, but he comes across as incredibly personable. That feature could make Biden look cruel if he hits too hard, and it may allow Pawlenty to strike the Democrats harder without seeming mean. Biden’s own ability to be a smiling assassin has been cited in many corners as a great asset, and Pawlenty could neutralize and potentially capture that.
- Cons: The flip side of the nice-guy coin is that he could wilt under the bright lights, much like Quayle in his debate with Bentsen. In the face of a Biden assault, could Pawlenty stand tall and give as good as he gets? Pawlenty has no foreign affairs experience, and you can certainly expect Biden to use that to his advantage.
- Pros: While she’s largely dropped out of the discussion (much to Bill Kristol’s chagrin), Palin would be an incredible opportunity as a debater against Biden. I’d love to hear her attack Biden for his Violence Against Women Act, which operated under the assumption that only women can be victims of domestic violence. I’d love to hear her ask how a candidate on a ticket of changing the way Washington works can possibly be the same man who kicked off the Judiciary Wars with the Anita Hill and Robert Bork hearings. Such a fresh face, insulated from so many attacks due to her recent emergence on the political scene, would be virtually impossible for the Obama campaign to scheme against.
- Cons: As a newbie to Washington politics, she would also lack a frame of reference for most of the national debates that are second-nature to Biden. Expect at least one question from a Dem-friendly media type about an obscure piece of legislation, like ENDA or farm subsidies, to showcase Biden’s experience and Palin’s naivete. Biden is truly a skilled debater, so if he could keep his tongue in check, he could come across as more polished.
- Pros: What Biden does for Obama on foreign affairs, Romney does for McCain on the economy. Romney’s success as a businessman and governor will make him far more able to explain the GOP economic perspective and provide a useful contrast to Biden’s Washington experience. This might be the most interesting clash of ideologies to occur in this campaign — do the voters want capitalist economic expansion or socialist redistribution of wealth as a response to the latest economic troubles? There’s no better potential running mate to frame that crucial dispute.
- Cons: Romney was a very inconsistent debater in the primaries. One week he was wooden and caustic, the next he was witty and wise. He would have to be at the top of his game against Biden, and even on his best day, Romney is neither as quick nor as spontaneous as Biden. Romney was good at fixing the previous debate’s mistakes in the next debate, but there won’t be a second veep debate this fall. Romney’s patrician background would do nothing to counter Biden’s appeal as an everyman.
- Pros: Yes, I know he’s already “closed the window” on accepting the VP nod, but would he reconsider just for the opportunity to inform Biden that he works neither at 7-11 nor at Dunkin Donuts, but he does like their coffee? (shamelessly borrowing from Geraghty). And is there any better way to neutralize the scurrilous allegations of racism against McCain voters than to put a guy from Louisiana with darker skin than Obama behind the podium?
- Cons: Jindal’s time in Washington would serve him well against Biden on policy matters, but he still is new to the political scene and to presidential-level debates. He’s always been very polished when I’ve seen him, but you never know how a guy handles the big stage until he’s on it. As for the experience debate, it would be as if McCain decided to invert the age differential between himself and Obama.
In assembling these thoughts, it occurred to me: where is the Southerner whose mere presence against all these Yankees would instantly solidify McCain’s hold on Appalachian/Southern states? Obama hasn’t expanded his geographic reach with Biden, so McCain has no need to counter. Is the fear that a white Southern guy in a race against the first black presidential nominee in history would invoke the ghost of Jim Crow? If so, that saddens me. Just the hint of an accent and a folksy witticism might be instantly disarming in a way that none of these candidates could match. So says the Georgian commentator, anyway. Paging Lindsey Graham…?