Normally, politicos pretend to be worried about how their chosen candidate will perform in the debate. They want to drive down expectations and set the bar for debate victory so low that even Rick Perry could climb over it. This time, however, Republicans just can't wait for the vice presidential debate. The zeitgeist of the conservative base can be summed up by a post on RedState.com titled "Let's Be Real: Ryan v Biden Will Be an Absolute Slaughter," which has as its thesis, "Ryan holds an astronomical advantage over Vice President Biden in every area known to man, animal, plant, insect, you name it; every living creature knows Biden has no shot in the hottest Hell come October 11th."
Republicans underestimate Joe Biden at their own peril. His famous gaffes come when speaking off the cuff during informal campaign stops. He is far more polished in formal settings like debates while still having the ability to connect with ordinary American voters. Conservatives will be surprised on Friday when Joe Biden defeats yet another conservative darling just as he defeated Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan's 1987 Supreme Court nominee.
A proponent of originalist legal philosophy, Bork was a foe of abortion rights, federal civil rights laws, antitrust laws, the right to privacy, and everything else supported by liberals. If he were allowed to replace moderate justice Lewis Powell, there would be a majority to overturn Roe v. Wade and remove the Supreme Court as a check on the conservative social agenda. Joe Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and thus it fell to him to lead the fight against Bork. Ted Kennedy and other prominent Democrats could make all the speeches they wanted, but only Joe Biden would lead the questioning of Robert Bork in front of the national media and with the American public watching on television.
In the 1980s, unlike today, it was expected that Supreme Court appointees would be confirmed so long as they had a capable legal mind, and while liberals could argue against Bork's beliefs, he had experience as Solicitor General and a federal appeals court judge that more than qualified him for the Supreme Court. Democrats controlled the Senate, and desperately wanted to reject Bork's nomination, but feared the public backlash if they were seen as politicizing the confirmation process. Biden would need to prove, through his questioning of the justice, that Bork was not merely a conservative but an extremist so radical that he would turn back the clock on decades of social progress for women and minorities. Today, Biden needs to prove that Paul Ryan is not some ordinary conservative but a fanatic who wants to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, cut taxes for the rich while slashing Medicare and Medicaid for working families.
Then as now, conservatives saw Biden as an easy foe to dispatch. After all, he graduated ninth from the bottom of his class at Syracuse Law School, while Bork was one of America's preeminent legal scholars. To make matters worse, Biden was damaged goods going into the confirmation hearings, as news about his plagiarizing a speech from British politician Neil Kinnock had blown up his presidential campaign. Conservative pundit George Will titled his newspaper column on the Bork nomination "The Senator is Overmatched," while Howard Baker, President Reagan's chief of staff, was so confident Bork would be confirmed that he viewed it as an easy victory which would restore Reagan's political momentum after the Iran-Contra scandal. Bork, just as Ryan is today, was favored to handily defeat Biden when they crossed rhetorical swords.
Biden stunned his critics with questioning of Robert Bork defined not by gaffes but with articulate arguments easily understandable to the voters watching the confirmation process. In contrast, Robert Bork's responses to the committee were delivered in a condescending tone befitting a professor lecturing a truculent student, and he made no attempt to hide his opposition to abortion rights and privacy rights in general. America listened to the plainspoken Sen. Biden and they liked what he had to say. When Joe Biden was finished, public opinion had been turned against Bork and his nomination was rejected first by the Judiciary Committee in a 9-4 vote and later by the a 58-42 vote of the full Senate.
As a conservative myself, I wish Biden was less successful in 1988, but the episode should be a warning for those who think Paul Ryan's victory in the vice presidential debate as a foregone conclusion. Paul Ryan is going into this debate with a tax and budget plan most voters oppose just as Bork entered his confirmation hearing with a legal philosophy most Americans disagreed with. Biden will best Ryan the same way he bested Bork, with easily understandable arguments that convince the audience his opponent is a radical. It was easy with Bork, it will be easy with Ryan, and on Friday conservatives will wake up, just as they did in 1987, asking how someone so stupid could beat someone so smart. Ryan's supporters will probably whine about the moderator just like Democratic partisans did after Obama's debate loss, but regardless of what excuses are made, Joe Biden will have beaten the odds yet again.