The potential presidencies of Joe Biden and Paul Ryan: why you should watch tonight’s debate

What do contenders need to say in Kentucky?

DES MOINES, Iowa—It has been 67 years since Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga., and 49 years since John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. This is the longest stretch of presidential health and survival since John Tyler moved into the White House following the death of William Henry Harrison just 30 days after he was inaugurated in 1841.

So as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan take the stage in Kentucky tonight for the lone vice presidential debate of 2012, it is understandable that most voters view the job as an assistant president rather than in traditional constitutional terms. Who wants to dwell on theoretical tragedy? It is wrenching to contemplate a transition that Harry Truman described in 1945 as, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

If either Biden or Ryan were ever to ascend to the presidency in the next four years, he would govern with a different style and emphasis than the man he succeeded. This is not surprising since both Biden and Ryan were selected to balance their tickets.

In 2008, Biden was tapped because he offered something that Barack Obama lacked—more than half a lifetime in the Senate and national security expertise earned as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. In similar fashion, Ryan filled a gap in Mitt Romney’s résumé. Not only did the Republican running mate provide seven terms of congressional experience, but Ryan also has displayed an ideological constancy (with, admittedly, a few deviations) at odds with Romney’s zigzag political journey.

Nearly five years ago—here in Iowa during the run-up to the January 2008 Democratic caucuses—I watched Senator Biden of Delaware make his second attempt to become President Biden. (In 1987, Biden withdrew from the presidential race after he was caught plagiarizing a campaign speech from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock). Even though Biden corralled only 1 percent of the vote in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, his strong performances on the stump and in the Democratic debates made him appear like a plausible president.

That half-forgotten Iowa campaign provides a window into how Biden might approach the presidency. For all his liberal pedigree, Biden at his core reflects his 36 years in the Senate as a legislative dealmaker. In contrast to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Biden’s 2007 health-care plan was based on a series of incremental steps beginning with providing catastrophic coverage for all Americans. What matters now are not the policy details, but rather Biden’s pragmatic emphasis on what seemed at the time to be legislatively achievable rather than historic.

Under President Biden, foreign policy would probably follow the broad contours of the Obama administration. But Biden’s record, dating back to the Vietnam War, reflects a sadder-but-wiser awareness of the limitations of American military action. In 2006, during the Bush administration, Biden proposed scaling back American ambitions in Iraq by partitioning the country into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions. In the Obama White House, Biden was the leading in-house dissenter arguing against an expanded American military mission in Afghanistan.

The biggest difference between Obama and Biden would be presidential temperament. Biden is (warning: startling revelation ahead) garrulous and not a loner like Obama. As president, Biden would not lavish more time on his daily exercise routine than chatting informally with congressional leaders.

But the bipartisan Senate of Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole—the Senate that framed Biden’s public career—no longer exists. It is illustrative that Biden’s 2011 budget negotiations with a group of Senate moderates, the Gang of Six, ended in failure. But in contrast to every president since Lyndon Johnson (with the conspicuous exception of Jerry Ford), Biden remains a creature of Capitol Hill. Legislative gridlock might endure under President Biden, but the White House undoubtedly would be far more energetic in its efforts to unsnarl the congressional traffic jam.

Envisioning President Ryan is understandably far more difficult because until recently he was, in effect, Private Ryan to most voters. What seems evident, though, is that in the White House, the 42-year-old Ryan would be more emotionally accessible than either Obama or Romney. Campaigning in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque, Iowa, last week, Ryan referred to his roots in nearby Wisconsin when he said: “A lot of people I grew up with—a lot of friends of mine—are in between jobs. You know, they lost their jobs at our GM plant or at some other factories.”

Taming the deficit presumably would be the centerpiece of a Ryan presidency, as his chairmanship of the House Budget Committee was the credential that vaulted him onto the Republican ticket. The Ryan budget (a phrase that we are apt to hear many times from Biden during tonight’s debate) would have gradually turned Medicare into a voucher program and shrunk Medicaid into a block grant to the states. But in the House—unlike many conservative purists—Ryan displayed enough ideological flexibility and enough awareness of Wisconsin’s economy to vote for the 2008 Wall Street bailout and for Obama’s rescue of the auto industry.

In one important respect, though, President Ryan would probably have more political independence than Romney. Trusted by conservatives in a way that Romney is not, Ryan would not need to spend his entire time in the White House watching his right flank and worrying about a Republican primary challenger in 2016.

It remains a stretch to imagine Ryan presiding over a Nixon-goes-to-China, against-the-grain deficit deal that includes (get the smelling salts—Republicans have fainted) tax increases as well as budget cuts. But because of his budget-hawk plumage, Ryan would probably retain enough credibility with his party’s base to explain that such a bipartisan bargain was the best deal attainable.

There is always an aura of unreality to the second-banana debates that began in 1976 with Bob Dole railing against “Democrat wars.” What is almost never discussed is how vice presidents envision their role in the White House, which can be anything from a Dick Cheney shadow presidency to a Dan Quayle cipher.

Instead, tonight’s debate is more of a sporting event pitting the Obama Oval Offices against the Romney Raiders. Maybe it is better that way. No one likes to contemplate the literal meaning of the phrase, “a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

But sad a notion as it may be, the framers of the Constitution created the second highest job in the land for reasons that went beyond providing the president with a loyal sidekick. And that is why two potential presidents—Joe Biden and Paul Ryan—will be duking it out in Danville tonight.

Correction, 7:10 p.m. ET, Oct. 11: A previous version of this column misstated the number of years it has been since FDR's death.