Friday, October 03, 2008

About Last Night...













What a topsy-turvy political season we’re living through when the most hotly anticipated vice-presidential debate in this country’s history was also the one in which the leading lady went in beneath a cloud of the lowest expectations of her career.

Things haven’t been going so well for McCain/Palin. The American people are moving toward the Democrats in these uncertain economic times. Three weeks ago Sen. McCain was a force to be reckoned with. Now, his prowess is wilting. Yesterday, McCain pulled out of Michigan entirely, conceding he could not win there. Florida GOP leaders called for closed door emergency meetings as Obama’s numbers continue to swell in the Sunshine State. Up nearly 10 points in a nation-wide AP poll, Obama is starting to pull ahead in many polls covering the toss-up states, including Colorado and Virginia. Pennsylvania, once disputed, is now solidly for Obama.

For her part, Gov. Palin has become a satirical punching bag — on the right and the left. Her honeymoon, so lustrous just a month ago, has officially ended. After a series of disastrous interviews with CBS’ Katie Couric, even prominent conservatives have admitted she is out of her league and should step aside. Gov. Palin is on the verge of becoming a liability to her campaign.

So last night was Palin’s time to shine…or implode. Did you hear that giant collective sigh of relief at about 10:30? That was the entire Republican Party exhaling a breath they’d been holding for a solid hour and a half.

She’d done it.

Sort of.

To prove her fitness at last night’s debate, Gov. Palin needed to do little more than not trip on her way out to the lectern. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Palin did more than survive Sen. Biden last night, she held her own. From the start she was folksy and direct, looking into the camera (and even winking at it—tell me one male politician that could have gotten away with that) even more than Obama did last week. Her smile, admittedly grating after an hour and a half, never left her face. She was enthusiastic and funny. She spoke of soccer games, decried the media and those who call the East Coast home, uttered “doggone it” and invoked Joe Sixpack. She championed her distance from Washington, saying that she’s been at this national political stuff for only five weeks. (Yes, Ms. Palin, that much is obvious.) She spoke often and glowingly of the middle class, something her boss completely ignored in his debate. She jabbed cloyingly with “say it ain’t so Joe,” a line she’d obviously been waiting to spring on Biden all night. And she used the word “maverick” like it was some sort of magic talisman.

If the Sarah Palin we saw last night was the Sarah Palin we’ve been seeing in what few media interviews she’s afforded us, then her reputation right now would be quite different. But personality and performance is not the same thing as comprehension and innate understanding.

“I may not answer the questions the way either you or the moderator want to hear. I’m going to speak straight to the American people,” she said early on and we all know why.

What Sarah Palin did last night was little different than what she did the night we first met her in front of a battery of teleprompters. Last night’s debate was the next best thing to standing in front of a script — memorize your talking pints, ignore the questions, recite whatever you want. If Palin floundered in her answers to Katie Couric last week, she simply ignored them altogether last night. And she did so with panache. She sounded as if she were reading off of cue cards for much of the debate. That wasn’t independent, free thought, it was recitation. Palin never moved beyond her talking points in the entire 90 minutes. She repeated campaign clichés and the same well-worn attack lines over and over again.

For his part, Sen. Biden, while certainly not hitting it out of the park, did manage to do exactly what he came there to do. But then, given his experience and skill, his expectations weren’t remotely as low as Palin’s. Instead of long-winded answers — a trait he shares with Obama — he replied in short, lucid, factual sentences. He never condescended to his opponent, was never disdainful to her, nor attacked her in such a way that would have been perceived as bullying. And best of all, for all those worrying about Biden’s propensity to stick his foot in his mouth, the senator from Delaware was entirely gaffe free.

Sen. Biden did a nice job challenging Palin for her claims to the heartland. “The notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone…” he said, tears appearing when discussing the death of his wife and daughter.

Sen. Biden showed a clear grasp of the big picture and of the details that made up that big picture. He out-performed Ms. Palin on almost every issue, especially foreign policy and national security. When the debate moved beyond domestic energy issues, the governor’s forte, Palin was lost, her lack of national and international experience all too evident.

On Israel, Palin could offer little more than the importance for a two-state solution (at Ifill's suggestion) and the importance of building our embassy in Jerusalem.

On nuclear deterrence, the most she could muster is that nuclear bombs were bad and needed to stay out of the hands of bad guys.

Asked what her and John McCain’s exit strategy is in Iraq, she replied with “the surge.” The surge? Now who can’t tell the difference between strategy and tactics?

When Palin tried to come back at Biden for pointing out that the American commander in Afghanistan disagreed with McCain’s call for an Iraq-style surge, she mistakenly referred to a Civil War general, not the current military leader in Afghanistan.

Domestically, she parroted the usual lines about tax cuts, while offering little whatsoever of substance to the crisis facing our economy. She continued to peddle the ridiculous spin about the American worker being the fundamental McCain continues to invoke when discussing the economy. She said a McCain/Palin Administration would demand rigorous oversight, and in the next breath said government should get out of business’ way.

Palin got points on healthcare. She may not have offered anything of value herself, but she did a great job questioning Biden’s plans by asking if Americans really wanted the same government that is currently stumbling drunkenly over saving Wall Street to run their healthcare system.

Palin, who has backed off her skepticism about human involvement in global warming since joining McCain, gave Biden one of his most powerful moments of the evening when she said she didn’t want to argue about the causes of global warming, just the solutions. Stating that Palin’s answer marked the biggest distinction between the two tickets, Biden shot back, “If you don’t understand what the cause is, then it’s difficult to come up with the solution.” Indeed. You can’t learn from the past when you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong or are in any way responsible. Biden rightly realizes that Palin’s distorted worldview toward responsibility goes far beyond global warming.

Curiously, Palin played off her comment several days ago about having watched Biden give speeches while she was in grade school, by pushing that the last thing America wants or needs is yet another Washington insider. It’s a curious claim coming from the running mate of a man who has served in Congress for nearly 30 years.

As the debate went on, Biden got more specific and Palin more abstract. Last night, he, and not Palin, was the straight talker. Biden knew his facts. He answered direct questions directly. Palin did not. And yet she more than held her own. Why? In avoiding the train wreck everyone expected, Palin came out of last night’s debate looking far stronger than when she went in. It’s all an optical illusion, of course, but it’s a damn good one.

Luckily for Sarah Palin, last night was not a letter graded test, but rather a pass/fail. By anyone’s estimation, she passed, but while she succeeded in doing her cause no harm, she probably didn’t help it much either. I doubt that last night will make much of a dent in the polls for either candidate.

UPDATE: Here's SNL's interpretation of the debate.

10 Comments:

Blogger Rhonda said...

Here's what struck me about the debate: As they spoke about the events of the past few decades - foreign, domestic, good, bad - Biden was talking about the history he's lived through and the battles he's fought for the American people. Palin was regurgitating what had been drilled into her over the past few weeks like a college freshman facing her first final.
Of course, it's not her fault she's 22 years younger. And of course you could point out that, while McCain was suffering in a Vietnamese hellhole, Obama was in grade school.
But on the other hand, when Palin was 20 years old, she was entering beauty contests and trying to figure out what she wanted to be when she grows up. At that age, Biden was majoring in history and political science and preparing for law school.
I find it extremely insulting that Republicans think that women are so dense that we'll vote for McCain/Palin just because she is a woman.

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Delahunt (POD) said...

On the other side of the coin... I find it insulting that 95% of African-Americans are going to vote for Obama because he is black. Which party is truly to blame for voting based on "identity politics?"

And I do NOT support Sarah Palin because she is a woman. I support her because she is a governor that rules on CONSERVATIVE principles. If Obama were not so goddamned liberal, I would consider voting for him; however, I do not vote on the based of identity!

6:55 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Well then you'll be glad to know that today, when one of the African American volunteers expressed shock when one of the black families she interviewed said they'd be voting for McCain, I told pretty much told her exactly what you just said. After a few rounds back and forth, I asked her if, as a woman, she would be voting for Sarah Palin. She got the point.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Delahunt (POD) said...

Ironically, she is one of two African-American women that I have heard of not voting for Obama... smart woman indeed.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

I'm not aloud to vote in this country, but Brandon knows that I do tend to the right. But I come to 'The Ready Room' after every major event to read some of the more intelligent comments about the presidential race. Thanks Brandon.

But Rhonda -- I'm interested in this line:

I find it extremely insulting that Republicans think that women are so dense that we'll vote for McCain/Palin just because she is a woman.

Yes, that would be insulting. And patronizing. And condescending.

But I must say that I find it equally insulting that people just assume that the Republicans put her up for that reason.

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Adam Brickley said...

With the dust finally settling after the debate, it is becoming more and more clear that Sarah scored a resounding victory last night. The conservative media is ecstatic, and most of the mainstream media are declaring it a draw but noting that Sarah did exactly what she needed to do. The leftists and Obambaphiles aren't impressed, but we weren't expecting them to see the light anyway. Even if we accept the idea that Sarah and Sen. Biden tied (and I will admit that the he did well), I would give the tie to Sarah for several reasons:

1) Low expectations.
2) The debate was billed as a referendum on Sarah, and hardly anyone mentioned Joe Biden in the run-up. Far more people tuned in to watch her than her opponent, so she probably got more attention from the audience.

I would also note that skeptics such as David Brooks and Peggy Noonan wasted no time in jumping back on the bandwagon (though we are still awaiting reaction from Kathleen Parker).

So, Sarah is not only back in the game but back with a vengeance. To quote Noonan, "she killed." The only question now is how much movement we will see in the polls. My guess is that McCain will get enough of a bump to take back narrow leads in Virgina, Florida, and possibly Ohio. That would leave him down slightly overall, but well within striking distance if he can score victories in his own debates (which, judging by his first performance, he can).

Lastly, I think we saw last night that the unedited Sarah is far better than the unethical, cut-and-spliced travesties that Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric presented (and no, I don't think that's putting it to harshly after reading the unedited transcripts). This should provide a lesson to the McCain campaign that LIVE interviews are a absolute necessity for Sarah. I don't have a particular affinity for the Sunday talk shows, but I'm starting to think that they are the best venue simply because they cannot be edited. I know that Brian Williams of NBC has the next private interview lined up, and while I think he may have to be more careful after watching the debate, the campaign should assume that he will be just as...ahem..."artistic" in his editing as the other two network anchors. So, now is the time to start booking "Meet the Press" if they want to avoid another hit job.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

There are just a few problems with your comments. Allow me:

1) “[M]ost of the mainstream media are declaring it a draw but noting that Sarah did exactly what she needed to do.”

Yes, they are saying that Sarah did what she needed to do (so did I), but they are not declaring it a draw. Only FOX and the WSJ seem to have given it to Palin…barely. CNN gave it to Biden 51%-36%. CBS gave it to Biden 46%-21%. MSNBC gave it to Biden 76%-20%. I could go on.

2) The debate was billed as a referendum on Sarah, and hardly anyone mentioned Joe Biden in the run-up. Far more people tuned in to watch her than her opponent, so she probably got more attention from the audience.

Yes, because no one was concerned about Biden’s experience, if he knew the answers to the questions, etc. Palin on the other hand has shown that, one on one, without memorizing chunks of text that allow her to “not answer the question in the way you or the moderator may want,” she implodes. Which leads to my next point.

3) Lastly, I think we saw last night that the unedited Sarah is far better than the unethical, cut-and-spliced travesties that Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric presented (and no, I don't think that's putting it to harshly after reading the unedited transcripts).

Really? Whether on screen or written down, she still doesn’t answer the questions or when she does, does so in incoherently gibberish. You can talk hack-jobs all you want but the fact remains that she can’t so much as name one news publication she reads much less give a credible answer about foreign affairs.

4) The only question now is how much movement we will see in the polls. My guess is that McCain will get enough of a bump to take back narrow leads in Virgina, Florida, and possibly Ohio. That would leave him down slightly overall, but well within striking distance if he can score victories in his own debates (which, judging by his first performance, he can).

Dream on. You do realize that all movement before and since the debate is the exact opposite of what you just said, right? Almost all the numbers are tumbling Obama’s way.

5) This should provide a lesson to the McCain campaign that LIVE interviews are a absolute necessity for Sarah. I don't have a particular affinity for the Sunday talk shows, but I'm starting to think that they are the best venue simply because they cannot be edited. So, now is the time to start booking "Meet the Press" if they want to avoid another hit job.

You and I COMPLETELY agree there. But I’m not sure why. It’s the one-on-ones where she shows her lack of comprehension of the events and falls apart minus her talking points. “Meet the Press’” late host, Tim Russert would have had a field day with Palin’s questions dodging. If what you say is true, ask yourself why Palin’s minders haven’t signed her up for things like “Meet the Press.” It’s not for their lack of asking, I assure you. She’s not on “Meet the Press” for the same reason that she has had the media blackout from day one—her people know she cannot hold her own there. What is it, three or so interviews in over a month? Yeah, the McCain campaign shows greaaaat confidence in Palin.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

We're not waiting on Kathleen Parker any more Adam.

I'm watching The Chris Matthew's Show right now. She is trashing Palin. The nicest thing she could say about her is that she reminded her of a "wind up doll." She's called her a parrot and predicts that we won't see much in the way of media interviews till election day (where did you hear about NBC getting an interview?) because they know she can't possibly handle it.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

But I must say that I find it equally insulting that people just assume that the Republicans put her up for that reason. [being a woman]
Oh, of course. They picked her for her vast experience and long history of working well with McCain. Yep, that's it.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Hi Rhonda -- I don't know you, but I am assuming that you have other thoughts besides this one. I can't tell if you are annoyed at my comment.

Of course, you know that there are other options. I assume that you know that. We ought not be so gender-centric. The most obvious would be that she is more conservative than McCain -- not a bid for you as a woman, but for the base of Reaganite repblicans.

8:12 PM  

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