Paul Ryan is a very intelligent young man, and he’s an honest man, and he’s also someone who can think on his feet.
When I think of my advice to him going into tomorrow night’s debate, I only have a few things to say. He’s probably heard a lot more from a lot of other people, so I’ll keep it simple:
1) You’re debating an old pro – but he’s also an old pro who has spent his life as a professional Plastic Man, a professional politician whose gigantic gleaming teeth and strange-sounding lapses into the vernacular have gotten him in lots of trouble on more than one occasion. Biden has a few brain cells left, but many of them are going to be of the treacherous variety that managed to survive. Watch out for the treacherous ones and be ready for them.
2) You, on the other hand, are a young man with a very long career ahead of you. This means that on the one hand you can feel comfortable in your skin but you need to take advantage of all the things that your youth bestows upon you. You need to stay sharp without looking or sounding *slick*.
3) Take your time but at the same time always seize the initiative. America loves youth and exuberance, but it particularly respects competent, think-on-its-feet youth and exuberance. Biden will do his best to make you sound inexperienced, glib and callow. You can expect that right now, because it’s a big part of his personality – but more importantly he desparately needs right now to portray himself as a Wise Elder. As a result he will do his best – whenever the opportunity presents itself – to portray you as a wet-behind-the-ears ingenue. Be prepared for it, but do not take the bait and don’t let yourself get thrown off track by his attempts.
4) Biden is notoriously, almost preternaturally heavy handed, but he falls apart under scrutiny. I don’t think he can match you in terms of “drill down” concentration. He probably has a few good old chestnuts, though. His predominant method of convincing people of something is grandiosity combined with backhanded compliments, corny wisecracks, and then some condescention and old chestnuts that he digs up and shows around. He likes to handle things with crushing logic statements and sweeping generalizations. I suspect that tomorrow night he’ll try to be a little lighter, a little more airbrushed and sharper, to try and look like he isn’t as old as he is. So *your* counterresponse is actually to be the better statesman than him. Even tempered and capable of moments of brilliance: that is what you need to deliver. He’s just not that hard to figure out, but I’m sure he’ll have a couple of curve balls down there in the ol’ Biden underpants.
5) We have confidence in you. We’ve watched you speak, we’ve watched you debate and we know that you have a command of the facts. But do you have a *sparkling* command of the facts? Those are the moments people remember in a debate: the quickness of mind and the aptness of a phrase. The things you say that you let emerge from the spark of insight and creativity are going to be the things that win the moment. Let yourself create those moments. In other words, give yourself the mental flexibility to be spontaneously intelligent. You’ll make Biden look like he needs to go home and take his teeth out.
6) Addendum. If Biden can’t succeed any other way, he’ll cheat. He’ll try to portray you as evil. When he thinks he’s losing a point, particularly if it’s an important point, he’s going to try to make you look like the Devil’s Tenderoni. You need to have one of those backpacks that has a hidden glove inside it that pops up and catches Biden’s Evil Imprecations. Because you’re going to get a couple of them tomorrow night if you’re at all successful. He’ll try to make you look sick, he’ll definitely try to make the policies you’ve talked about sound evil, because he’s a little bit of a bully and also he knows it makes his base get a tingle up their legs. It’s just like high school all over again.
7) Addendum II: There is a chance that Biden will try occasionally tomorrow night to do his best impression of Henry Kissinger and come across as serious, reserved, and circumspect. It’s a stretch for him, but don’t underestimate the possibility that he has a few sentences that Woodward threw him to make him sound like he’s a Master of the Universe.
You’re the young man but on the other hand you’re not extremely young. What you need to do tomorrow night is basically to be yourself, comfortable in your skin, ready to win the game. Don’t let Biden intimidate you. He likes to try and do that. His gestures with people on the campaign trail are always almost universally possessive. He tries to GRAB people and take command of them. We’ve all seen the pictures, we’ve all watched the theatrics. He’s a little too Burt Reynolds for his own good, if you know what I mean. He will try to do that with the audience, he tries to do it with acolytes, and then he might even try to do it with you.
I don’t need to go into policy specifics here: you’ve been poring over them for days now. You’ve got them at your command and the key to winning tomorrow night’s debate is to keep them all at your fingertips, to be deployed at the time of *your* choosing. Under stress, the most important thing is not to sound disrespectful but rather more agile-minded and authoritative.
Joe Biden is almost as much a manufactured entity as his boss is. You’re the real deal, a real person – an exceptional person. Don’t let it go to your head, but don’t let it escape you, either.
Good luck. We’re counting on you, Congressman Ryan.
No pressure. 🙂
When the weight of the world seems to be on your shoulders, remember that you have the spine to carry it. I know you won’t shrug. Fight!