The reviews are in from the Obama campaign's ad attempting to make Big Bird a campaign issue this morning, and ouch. Naturally, the Romney campaign has blasted out a smattering of headlines and damning tweets about it from reporters. Even the liberal blog Firedoglake ran with "Obama Ad About Big Bird Cannot Find One Prominent Wall Street Criminal Prosecuted By Administration."
As strategic miscalculations go, the ad is pretty devastating because it answers the big question that emerged from wreckage of last week's miserable performance: Why was Obama's performance so bad? The Big Bird ad seems to suggest that the Obama campaign was unable to respond to Romney's aggressive critiques simply because there's no substance to their campaign. They don't know what they're fighting for, as opposed to calling Romney a liar and grasping at Romney's claim that making taxpayers pay for an extremely profitable children's television show might not be necessary in an era where America owes trillions. By contrast, since the debate Romney's embraced big themes and made a major foreign policy address. As Maggie Haberman at Politico pointed out this morning, this is exactly the "small ball" politicking that made the Romney campaign the source of press derision for so long. Now Romney's flipped the script.
Which brings us to the vice-presidential debate on Thursday. The conventional wisdom has been that Paul Ryan, one of the most gifted policy minds in Congress, is going to crush gaffe-prone Joe Biden. Now I'm not saying this as a matter of setting expectations, but I wouldn't bet on this happening. Biden is a more canny and formidable politician than we often give him credit for, given his goofy behavior and propensity to say stupid things. He does seem to have a genuine rapport with people, and he got elected to the senate six times despite his history of plagiarism and frequently being a national punchline.
However, if Biden's going to win the debate he's going to have to play to his strengths. He's never going to be a guy who can coherrently explain how tax policy proposals help or hurt (and indeed he botched a lot of policy details in the 2008 veep debate), but the Obama campaign probably hoped regular-guy Joe could come off as more empathetic and caring than the policy Boy Wonder. Ideally, they could get Ryan would throw up a blizzard of data, and Joe Biden would just restate a few clear talking points about how Ryan wants to cut grandma's Medicare to give money to the rich. Biden would have to do a good job of selling the feeling-your-pain aspect of this approach, but he could do it. He rose to the occasion at the Democratic convention when he gave a speech that touched on these themes. A speech that, incredibly, was much better than Obama's.
However, there are two big problems with this approach. One is that Paul Ryan is portrayed as a wonk, but if you've seen him on the stump for Romney, the truth is that he's a really good retail politician. He's been elected seven times in a moderate Wisconsin district that even voted for Obama. If someone wants to paint Ryan as an uncaring number cruncher, he knows pretty well how to parry those attacks.
The second problem with this strategy takes us full circle back to Big Bird. If the narrative heading into the VP debate is that the Obama campaign isn't running on substance, and Joe Biden tries to win the debate purely on his likability and style points—it could fall flat in a big way. Big Bird just cut off Biden's best chance at winning the debate, because relying on the fact that America will bond with an avuncular Joe Biden will reinforce the narrative that the Obama campaign doesn't have serious answers. Biden's biggest strength is now a potential weakness.
Again, I don't think it's safe to count on a Biden implosion—he's been around the block and could well surprise. And even if Biden struggles, Ryan is still relatively unknown and will have to perform well to make a postive contrast. But in addition to worrying that Biden will come off as a lightweight if he tries to address serious issues with a charm offensive, factor in the nontrivial Biden will say something memorably stupid or otherwise mockable in the debate. Suddenly, the potential downside for the flailing Obama campaign after a bad Biden debate performance is huge.