For Democrats and supporters of former vice-president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, the hope is that the version of Biden who faced then-congressman Paul Ryan back in 2012 shows up for the debate against Donald Trump on Tuesday in Ohio.
The Biden who showed up for the Ryan debate eight years ago helped turn around the trajectory of then-President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Ask just about any former Obama campaign alumna or Democratic strategist and they will concede that Obama’s performance against Mitt Romney in the first debate was lacking.
“I would describe what he did in 2012 as a circuit breaker,” said Tad Devine, who ran Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
It was a low point in the campaign, former Obama campaign staffers recalled in interviews with the Guardian, and it was unclear whether Biden’s performance in the vice-presidential debate would help lift the suddenly faltering campaign back up or let it sink further.
“Obama’s performance was just miserable,” Devine said of the first 2012 debate between Obama and Romney. “Biden went in there against Ryan and, boy, he was appropriately aggressive. On point. Really drove the thing and I think staunched the bleeding.”
Staffers for the reelection campaign often contrast the first debate with the vice-presidential debate.
“Obama had flubbed the first debate and there was a lot of pressure on [Biden] to deliver and he nailed it and I know he sort of cold-cocked them,” a top reelection campaign adviser recalled.
The stakes for Biden’s performance are far higher in 2020 as he now tops the Democratic ticket and faces off against a norm-shattering figure such as Trump in a momentous election the whole world is watching.
“The first one is almost the whole ball game because we have a polarized country, everyone knows who they’re going to vote for except for a small group of people and they’ll watch the first debate and make a judgement,” said Bill Daley, a former chief of staff to Obama who also advised Biden on one of his earlier White House bids.
But the Biden who took the stage alongside Ryan, Mitt Romney’s nominee for vice-president, surprised some. He was energetic policy literate. And he didn’t produce the verbal missteps that for years he was famed for. As Ryan ticked off statistics or delivered his carefully crafted attack lines, Biden switched between stern seriousness and exasperated eyerolls. Seven minutes into the debate Biden used one of his trademark phrases – “Malarkey!” – to parry a remark by Ryan.
“Not a single thing he said is accurate,” Biden said with a determined smile on his face before he went on to detail how Ryan, as chairman of the House ways and means committee, had a hand in cutting off funding for a US embassy in Benghazi.
Whereas aides on the Obama campaign knew the president was not delivering in the first debate, the staff for Biden in the makeshift war room at Centre College in Kentucky flooded the spin room, where reporters interview candidates and surrogates after a debate, to capitalize on Biden’s performance.
“The first hour, hour and a quarter had been so good it didn’t even matter what had happened next,” a former Obama campaign staffer recalled of that debate. “We wanted to convey that.”
Similarly, at the Obama campaign reelection headquarters there was a strong sense of relief and optimism, according to multiple former staffers from that campaign. The campaign seemed to have overcome one of the bleaker periods.
Eight years later, the stakes are different. Biden is now the Democrats’ presidential candidate. One of Donald Trump’s favorite attacks is to knock the 77 year old on his age or vivacity (though Trump himself is 74). Biden also benefits from being the underdog.
“He benefits from low expectations going into these debates,” said David Wilhelm, who served as Biden’s Iowa campaign manager in his 1988 presidential bid. “Expectations can shift of course even from debate to debate. He’ll benefit from that.”
Biden has made a habit of keeping his top advisers close to him for years. Ron Klain, the former vice president’s chief of staff who helped prep him in 2012, has been involved in coaching him this time around. Sheila Nix, another longtime aide who was involved in preparation in 2012, is now a top staffer for California senator Kamala Harris’s staffing contingent of the Biden campaign. Mike Donilon, another longtime Biden adviser, and Biden campaign deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield are also involved.
Veterans of working with Biden and other campaigns argue that the former vice-president usually does better in head-to-head debates rather than multi-candidate ones. He also likes to get into policy without getting too wonky, recalled a top Obama campaign reelection adviser. But in preparation for debate he “just wants the backup to make the points that he wants to make”.
“He was terrific in the 2012 vice presidential debates and I think that would be a better model for this than where he had ten people or eight people on stage,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist who has advised Biden in the past and helped run rival Bob Kerrey’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Biden and his team have been readying for this debate for weeks, but only in the past few days has the focus increased, according to a Democrat with ties to the campaign. Biden himself acknowledged that recently.
“I’ve started to prepare but I haven’t gotten into it really heavily,” Biden said Wednesday while talking to a group of reporters. “I will beginning tomorrow.”
He’s set to spend most of the final days before the debate preparing for it.
Devine warned that the worst case for Biden is if voters come out of the debate questioning Biden’s capacity to be president. Devine stressed he didn’t think that would happen but “that’s how low they’ve set the bar”.