Friday, October 03, 2008

The Debate: Palin's Folksy Charm Doesn't Trump Biden's Knowledge

Overall, the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden changed nothing about the dynamics of the presidential race. She stopped the bleeding from her own campaign, which had started after a series of bumbling, gaffe prone interviews she gave to Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. Her performance during those televised sessions had panicked Republicans, and a few prominent conservative pundits were even calling for her to step down or for McCain to replace her. Her performance at the debate, though, stopped that movement in its tracks and reassured the base, which was rooting for her anyway. But the fact that she actually convinced nobody beyond the base was problematic. In fact, that's why I'd say she lost the debate; because that, in fact, was what she needed to do. She needed to get back to the popularity that gave the McCain-Palin ticket a bounce coming out of their convention. She failed to do that.

But she also slowed the death spiral she was in. So, let’s start with what Sarah Palin did right because she did some things very well. That’s why lots of Republicans were buoyant in their first reactions the other night. They’re not stupid. They saw a good performance.

She came bounding on stage with energy, confidence, and poise. Her, “Pleasure to meet you; hey can I call you Joe,” was perfect. It was gracious and folksy. It was adorable and made it difficult not to like her. In fact, she is very likeable. Charming. That's her strong suit.

Unfortunately, it’s also her weakness. She’s slick all right. But under questioning, she didn’t answer the questions posed to her. Instead, she practiced bait and switch tactics, substituting an answer that she knew rather than addressing the actual question. For example, when asked about foreign policy or financial policy, she glibly pivoted to discuss energy. At one point, when Biden finally called her on avoiding questions, she admitted that she did not intend to answer the questions that moderator, Gwen Ifill, actually put to her. That, however, is the purpose of a debate. Unfortunately, the debate's previously agreed to ground rules prevented Ifill from following up, to probe or insist on answers. Of course, Ifill could have simply ignored the rule and exerted some more pressure. But she was already smarting from GOP attacks on her because she has recently penned a book, The Breakthough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, was absolutely right to resist the urge to go after Palin and play the heavy by insisting that she actually answer the questions posed to them both. That is the role of the moderator, and he wasn't going to play bad cop because the moderator was forced by an outrageous rule to abdicate doing her job. For his part, Biden was brilliant. He gave short, crisp answers that displayed the depth of his knowledge without becoming pedantic or overbearing. He avoided putting people off by boring them or coming off as a know it all. Indeed, he was charming and managed a few nice folksy touches himself, like when he invited viewers to walk with him down Union Street in Wilmington, Delaware, and go into Katie's coffee shop to talk to the regulars about their struggles to make ends meet and get by.

And the moment when he choked up while discussing his experience as a single father caring for a seriously injured son, after his wife's fatal car accident, was incredibly moving to viewers regardless of their political preferences. I think he displayed a central part of his character to viewers at that moment, which was that he was a human being who had survived the starkest of tragedies, devoted himself to his family and understood suffering and perserverance in the midst of unspeakable heartbreak. He came off as rock solid, reliable Joe.

Palin, on the other hand, while charming, was too slick. She could only stick to her talking points, stay on message, and appear perky. Sometimes she came across, frankly, as silly, especially when she smiled brightly and said to Biden “There you go again.” Somehow channeling her inner Ronald Reagan while looking adorable might play to the GOP base, but just seemed cloying to ordinary people. In fact, invoking Reagan’s trademark insistence that the government was always the problem was probably not the smartest move at a time when the nation’s economy teeters on the brink of disaster and even conservatives in Congress were poised to vote for the bailout plan.

Also, her constant “you betchas” and “darned rights” got cloying after a while. It made her seem like Skippy the Wonder Candidate. In fact, I’d have no trouble voting for her for class president of Wassilla High School or homecoming queen. But she lacked gravitas and didn’t inspire confidence that she was ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency during a time of crisis.

Sarah Palin probably gained some ground with her performance at the debate. But not enough to change the game once again for a faltering Republican ticket. She inspired no real confidence while her opponent did. And he managed to appear likeable too. And that wasn't good for Palin because her only hope was for him to turn the crowd off by appearing verbose or overbearing to her. He was neither. In fact, he probably helped his side gain a few votes. And that was Palin's biggest loss.

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