Michael Tomasky on Joe Biden’s Turn to Take Down Paul Ryan

Ryan has said he got into politics because of Ayn Rand, which is like being inspired to go into the energy business because of Enron. Charles Ommanney for Newsweek

Mitt Romney sure did what he needed to do in last week’s debate. He ran rings around the president, who looked half the time like he was barely interested in being there. A number of—no, most of—Romney’s assertions about his plans were false or misleading. But Barack Obama failed utterly to rebut them. Those 90 minutes made it a new race.

This week, the spotlight turns to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, who square off Thursday. We know what Biden is capable of, for good and for ill. His inexplicable comment last week that the middle class has been “buried” for the last four years was seized on by Romney in his very first answer at the debate. But Biden has been around the block a hundred times, and he’s capable of passion and intelligence and something that completely eluded Obama last Wednesday—the memorable soundbite (“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive; any questions?”).

So the focus will really be on Ryan, the neophyte to the big stage, the arch-conservative budget hawk whom Romney put on the ticket to please the Republicans’ fire-breathing base (and probably some rich donors). You know the basic story: he’s the Republicans’ wonk, the guy with the numbers, the one who dazzles his colleagues at caucus meetings with impressive-sounding budgetary terms they don’t know. This body of knowledge has led his GOP colleagues, and more importantly the media, to give him a pass on the fact that his numbers don’t really add up, and that he does things like tear into Obama for not embracing the Simpson-Bowles budget recommendations when he himself voted against them.

All this has made him the GOP’s ideological leader—the devotee of Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” theory of selfishness, of the makers and the takers, who once said he got into politics because of Rand, which is sort of the moral equivalent of being inspired to go into the energy business by Enron. Ryan embodies—he is—ideological conservatism unleashed. Romney embodies an establishment conservatism of a type that’s been around for a long time, although it too is more extreme than it once was. Far-right figures like Michele Bachmann and other Tea Party players are ideological in a sense, though they’re more right-wing evangelical populist. But Ryan is all ideology, like an old Communist Party theoretician, matching Randian theory to party praxis, as the Marxists used to say.

Newt Gingrich fancied himself such a figure, with his highfalutin references to the Punic Wars and such. But his mind is too undisciplined. Ryan, though, is all business. He absorbed an interpretation of the world from Rand and from ultra-conservative Catholic teaching (an irresolvable paradox, since Rand thought religious people were complete morons). He’s taken the steps to put it in place, learning the enemy’s tricks and lingo. It’s usually liberals who bother to become budget experts, because it’s liberals who want to protect and expand domestic programs. Ryan learned the language to destroy them.

When Romney tapped him, the right hailed him as a brilliant choice and clear plus who’d vault the ticket skyward. “Change is now on the side of the Republicans!” thundered conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer on Aug. 11, the day Ryan was tabbed.

Well, so far, the main change Ryan has stood for has been a change in his reputation for the worse. And the only vaulting he’s been doing has been earthward. A poll came out last week (the day before the debate) showing Obama leading Romney by 11 points in Wisconsin, Ryan’s home state, the one his presence on the ticket was supposed to return to the GOP column for the first time since 1984. We don’t yet know how dramatically last week’s debate shifted the dynamic, but 11 is a lot of points to make up in a month.

Can Ryan, in his second big moment on the national stage, keep up the head of steam that Romney built up with his performance? To answer that question, we need to look back at Ryan’s first moment on the national stage. That would be his convention speech. It was a disaster. To the extent that Ryan’s standing—heretofore high in Washington, where he’s been an artful schmoozologist of Beltway culture for years—has suffered so far during this campaign, it’s first and foremost a function of that speech.

It sounded great the night he gave it. With impressive confidence for a 42-year-old who’d never given a speech like that in his life, he flashed some wit and some sparkle and delighted the crowd at the Tampa convention hall with some terrific one-liners. He joked about his heavy metal iPod playlist, making light sport of Romney’s Wonder Bread tastes, and zinged Obama: “The man assumed office four years ago. Isn’t it about time he assumed responsibility?”

paul-ryan-FE03-secondary Biden is capable of passion and intelligence—and producing the memorable sound bite. Nati Harnik / AP

But another, harder-to-impress audience—the few thousand people who actually know the details of economic policy—heard a tissue of lies. He wasn’t even done speaking before the fact-checking started on the blogs and Twitter. Silly assertions, so easily rebuttable: That famous $716 billion Obama supposedly “cut” from Medicare? Ryan counts on the very same savings in his own budget. And most incredibly, he blamed Obama for the closure of a GM plant in his hometown, even though GM’s announcement that it was closing the plant was delivered in 2008. The next day’s verdicts were savage. Even former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said Ryan “stretched the truth.”

Ryan tried to shake it off. But the simple fact is that he was facing a new level of scrutiny, and the claims he’d been making for years, the claims the entire party up to and including the nominee has rallied around, claims that were met with approving harrumphs when he spoke at the Heritage Foundation, just weren’t holding up in the big leagues. Conservatives have stood by him, of course—he’s their man, and the seemingly obvious first choice of economic conservatives for 2016 if he and Romney lose. Remember the event not long ago when the crowd was chanting “Ryan! Ryan!” and Romney had to urge them to throw his name in there too?

Ryan has taken on the traditional veep-attack-dog role with gusto. It’s Ryan, more than Romney, who floats out the Obama-as-Jimmy Carter economic analogies, which he debuted the week of the Democratic convention. More recently he’s moved on to foreign policy, where his record is paper thin, again invoking Carter: The Middle East, he said during the wave of protests, “looks like Tehran in 1979, except in about a dozen capitals throughout the world.”

Conservatives lap this stuff up, but the evidence has mounted that outside the amen corner, Ryan has been a liability. Right out of the gate he polled poorly, faring worse in one Gallup survey than even Sarah Palin had in 2008 as a vice-presidential pick. And aside from being of no help so far in his home state, he’s in trouble with two groups where Romney needs a win and a draw: seniors and women.

At first, Ryan looked like an asset among seniors—Romney and Ryan campaigned together in Florida (albeit in safe, very Republican parts of Florida), brought Ryan’s mother along to vouch for him, said they’d tackle Medicare’s solvency head on, and won some points for it. In an Aug. 23 New York Times/CBS poll, pluralities of seniors in Florida and Ohio said Romney-Ryan would do a better job protecting Medicare than Obama-Biden—a potentially devastating reality for a Democratic ticket.

But eventually—and as with the speech, inevitably—the facts started catching up. It turns out that the Ryan budget, which he says repeatedly will change Medicare only for people 55 and under, does have potential implications for current seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare, whose payments for prescriptions and preventive care would likely increase according to some studies. And if Romney spends that $716 billion, it would lead to faster insolvency for the Medicare Trust Fund. It’s all fairly complicated stuff, but somehow it—or something—got through, because the Romney-Ryan numbers on Medicare tanked. And everything culminated in Ryan being booed—not once or a few times, but steadily and loudly—at a speech before the AARP (again with Mom in tow).

Women haven’t exactly been wowed either. Ryan’s social and cultural views, particularly on abortion, are if anything more extreme than his economic ones. He opposes the right to an abortion even in cases of rape and incest and co-sponsored legislation to that effect with Missouri representative (and Senate candidate) Todd Akin, now notorious for a welter of reactionary statements about women. Ryan’s standard retort—that his personal position is not the ticket’s, since Romney does back rape-and-incest exceptions—is true, but it’s also a dodge: he hasn’t had the gumption to defend his actual views during this campaign, and it seems pretty likely that he won’t.

Unless, that is, Biden makes him. Thursday’s debate has the potential to be the rock’em-sock’em-est of them all (especially if Obama stays on the meds he seemed to be on last Wednesday). Biden has been swinging at Romney and Ryan for months now, sometimes missing but sometimes landing the best punches of any Democrat. Besides that, he knows he has to perform. Democrats are dispirited and even aghast at Obama’s performance, and they’ll be counting on Joe to change the storyline. And Ryan will be eager to keep the momentum on his team’s side—and to highlight Biden’s past gaffes and try to trap him into a couple new ones.

We’ve never seen Ryan in a debate at this level, but there’s every reason to believe he’ll be smooth, sincere-seeming—and as full of deceits as he was in his convention speech. He has to be—his budget, like Romney’s tax plan, is a three-card-monte game. Like Romney, Ryan never specified in his “The Path to Prosperity” report what loopholes and deductions he’d close.

Obama let Romney get away with misleading boilerplate. Biden will surely come in knowing that his job No. 1 is to pin Ryan to the mat and make him wriggle. At the very least Biden needs to nail him on three basic points:

Loopholes. Romney and Ryan still haven’t said what tax loopholes they’d close to make their numbers work. The reality, say many experts, even ones the Republican candidates cite in their defense, is that overall taxes will go up on families at $100,000 or more (two median-income earners). How do they plan on avoiding this?

The Deficit. And if they do avoid raising taxes—if everyone up and down the income scale actually pays less—how in the world does that not bust the deficit? It has to be one or the other. Unless, of course, they gut spending far beyond what they’ve explicitly proposed.

Obamacare. The health-care-reform law closes the famous “doughnut hole” in which seniors aren’t reimbursed for prescriptions above $2,930 per year and below $4,700 per year (owing to a glitch in the 2003 Medicare amendments). The Ryan budget would reopen it.

Finally, there’s the larger question of domestic discretionary spending—education, the environment, and so on, spending that polls show most Americans do not, in fact, despise. In the debate, Ryan will be careful to sound like ultraliberal Paul Wellstone when he talks about the poor and the safety net. He’ll know that very few people watching are aware that, for example, the Congressional Budget Office used the figures Ryan himself gave them to conclude that by 2030, he would cut Medicaid and children’s health insurance by 65 percent (yep) and general domestic spending by 33 percent as a percentage of GDP.

Ryan will smile sweetly if he’s challenged about this and swear up and down that he’d never dream of doing such a thing. Biden’s big challenge is to counter that response—and to take the fight to his opponent in a way that his boss so demonstrably failed to do.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Paul Ryan's age. He is 42, not 39.