What Joe Biden Knows About Paul Ryan's Type

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A man elected to the U.S. Senate at age 29 should be quite familiar with the young vice presidential contender's unique mix of cockiness, competence, ambition, and nerves.

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Joe Biden, 69, was elected a United States senator when Paul Ryan was not yet three years old and first took part in a presidential debate in 1987, when he was older than Ryan, 42, is now. The vice presidential showdown in Kentucky Thursday night is going to feature a difference in years greater than the age of your circa-2008 Obama-voting college student, even four years later.

Pouring into this gap in experience will be all the standard tropes about whippersnappers and graybeards, callow youth and bumbling age. It's not every day you get a contest featuring a Gen X guy proud of his pecs and his PowerPoints going head-to-head with a senior-citizen model of pre-Baby Boomer vitality and old-school political glad-handing. Biden's taken part in 18 presidential or vice-presidential debates in his lengthy career; Ryan has debated only a handful of times, during his first congressional race in 1998, when he faced off against a Democratic alderman, a woman 19 years his senior, for his Wisconsin district. He even has less experience debating before a major audience than Sarah Palin, having never run a statewide race before being plucked for the vice-presidential slot by Mitt Romney, who saw in him a kindred spirit.

Biden, meanwhile, is a gaffe machine. From BFD to his recent -- and not inaccurate -- statement that the middle class has been "buried for the last four years," he says what he's thinking, whether it's politic or not. His style of speaking is so mannered that the New Yorker recently hilariously reimagined his tropes as a waiter's pitch for the evening specials.

Where Biden is loquacious and even a little sloppy around the edges, Ryan is studious and fastidious, and like a diligent student has been boning up on Biden's debate history. But Biden has something going for him Ryan can't get out of a briefing binder, and that belies the difference in their ages: the memory of his own younger self, the hot-shot senator who won his place in that august body at the ripe age of 29 and was even more ambitious than Ryan in his early 40s. I mean, look at this 1987 clip of then-Senator Biden during his first presidential run:

What a brittle, arrogant mess -- and what a compelling case he made that the Democratic Party needed someone with the charisma and narrative abilities to compete on a Reagan level, instead of getting stuck in the weeds of policy debates that go above the heads of the American people (which is exactly what Obama did in his debate with Romney). It's always been Biden's fate, however, to not be that person, even as he could see the need for him. It's what -- along with the ticket-balancing experience he brought to Obama's 2008 campaign -- made him so perfect for the vice presidency.

Now compare that to Ryan's interview with ABC12 in Flint, Michigan just recently:

Where young Biden responded with bombast and boasts when feeling defensive, Ryan's impulse is to shut things down. But emotional tendencies aside, there's a remarkable similarity to their journeys. Paul Ryan, the wunderkind elected to the House at 28, is on a journey few men can appreciate like Joe Biden.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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