Friday, October 03, 2008

On Winking

Two debates down, two to go.

Sarah Palin survived. She recovered from the disastrous Katie Couric interview by not completely freezing up, falling down, or going completely off the reservation. She exceeded expectations. But when expectations are as low as they were, that's not saying much. She answered no questions directly. She ran out of talking points and started repeating them. She renamed the general commanding the troops in Afghanistan, seriously misstated the McCain campaign's position on a provision to allow bankruptcy judges to rewrite mortgage payment terms (they oppose it) and wrongly said that the number of troops in Iraq were "down to presurge numbers." Worse than her non-answers, however, was the obnoxious way she delivered them. The moose-in-the-headlights stare into the camera was one thing, but the winking, the "folksisms" (you betcha, doggonit, say it ain't so, nucular, &c.) were enough to make my blood boil. She may want to channel Joe Six-Pack, but I certainly don't want Joe Six-Pack running the country (or even a heartbeat away from running the country).

Joe Biden gave one of the best debate performances we've seen since the beginning of this election cycle. He handled Palin deftly (which is to say amiably and without making a big deal of the fact that she wasn't actually answering the questions), and exhibited a clear grasp of what he was out there to do. He drifted occasionally into Senate-speak, and a few times fell into the trap of talking about himself too much and Obama too little. He made a few minor errors, but he closed very strongly and had a really "on" night overall.

The stagecraft and family dynamics at the end of the debate worked very well. It was nice to see the children and adults mingling - apparently comfortably - on stage, and pleasant that Biden and Palin engaged in what appeared to be a spontaneous conversation for several minutes. McCain could learn a thing or two from his VP on how to behave around other people, that much is clear.

Gwen Ifill did poorly. I don't know if it was purely a product of the debate rules, or what, but her failure to follow up on anything made it seem as though she wasn't even listening to the responses. The debate didn't flow well: this was partly caused by Palin's reversion to her talking points on every single question, but also because Ifill's questions didn't follow each other in any logical way. Again, this may have been a product of the rules, but if so, they were pretty silly rules.

Overall, I suspect this was like most of the VP debates (even if many more people watched this one): important for a day or two, but with no lasting effect. Palin's performance may have stiffened the spines of a few waverers on their side, but I find it difficult to believe that her words swayed undecided voters. The fact that this go-round wasn't a game-changer is good news for Obama-Biden; there is no reason to suppose that their current momentum will be slowed.

One more point about Palin today: last night's "Ask the VP" segment on CBS featured the following question from Katie Couric: "What do you think is the best thing and the worst thing that Dick Cheney has done as vice president?" Palin: "Worst thing, I guess, that woulda been the duck hunting accident, where, you know, that was, that was an accident. And that was made into a caricature of him, and that was kind of unfortunate." Video here. It's sad when shooting a guy in the face isn't the worst thing the current vice president has done, but Biden was closer: " think he's done more harm than any other single high elected official in memory in terms of shredding the constitution. You know, condoning torture, pushing torture as a policy. This idea of a unitary executive, meaning the Congress and the people have no power in a time of war, and the president controls everything. I don't have any animus toward Dick Cheney but I really do think his attitude about the constitution and the prosecution of this war has been absolutely wrong."

The differences in these answers says much about Palin and Biden, and perhaps reveal far more than the debate did.

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