Quick Takes on the Biden-Palin Debate
Accolades: I’ve seen every vice presidential debate since they began. This was the best one ever.
It was certainly the most substantive. While both candidates engaged in misconstructions of their opponents’ positions and records, neither was egregious in this.
Sarah Palin Didn’t Crash and Burn: I admit that my expectations of Palin going into the evening’s debate were extremely low. I’ve said on this site that while her selection by McCain for his running mate was a demographic home run, I wondered whether she could be taken seriously as a candidate for vice president. One may still question her qualifications, but not based on her debate performance. Sure, she did come back to those talking points a lot and yes, she was folksy, but she was also well-informed, even on foreign policy and national security questions.
Just Plain Folks: Joe Biden is a guy who plays up his middle class roots and legitimately so. He is, in many ways, still a middle class guy. Palin shares similar roots and, unlike what she did in her interview with Katie Couric, made no effort tonight, to pretend otherwise in the debate. Both Biden and Palin were devoid of pretense.
But Palin’s use of colloquial English was especially striking. I turned to my wife at one point and said, “She talks like my Mom.” That may just strike a chord in some voters.
Biden gets an A+: Just because Palin beat pre-debate expectations shouldn’t cause the fact that Biden turned in an outstanding performance to be ignored. There’s just no way of getting around the fact that, after thirty-five years in the Senate, Joe Biden knows the issues. He also was, at times, deadly in his indictments of the Republican Party’s record for the past eight years and of Senator McCain’s. Interestingly, I don’t believe that he ever criticized anything in Palin’s record. In fact, he applauded her for the Alaska windfalls tax on oil companies, a levy that results in refunds for the people of that state.
Blessedly Quip-Proof: Like the McCain-Obama set-to last Friday night, neither candidate came supplied with pre-canned zingers.
And while there was good humor and smiles, the two candidates, stood, so to speak, toe to toe, without much in the way of sarcasm. But even the little bit of sarcasm they used was delivered with decorum.
The Q Rating: The Q rating measures the likability of prominent personalities. My sense is that you would have to be a raving partisan to come away disliking either Joe Biden or Sarah Palin after tonight’s debate. They differ substantially on the issues and they went after one another tenaciously. But their ready smiles and their straightforward, if stylistically different, rhetoric, made them both likable.
This is a quality that Biden has always possessed. His innate affability, along with his obvious intelligence, comfort with himself, and knowledge of the critical issues confronting the country, all contributed to his being, I thought, the most attractive and interesting candidate for president in this year’s Democratic field. So, it’s no surprise that I came away from tonight’s debate still thinking that Joe would be a good guy with whom to watch a baseball game.
But, Palin’s likability may shock some people. For some, the surprise, if they’re willing to admit it, is that Palin didn’t collapse in a puddle, intimidated by a political veteran and his mastery of policy facts and options. For others though, it may have been that this woman who, in recent weeks, has been caricatured as part airhead and part Iron Lady, is a pleasant human being with a brain.
In the 2000 election, Al Gore had every reason to expect to beat George W. Bush. The economy was in good shape. The country was at peace. And Gore knew his stuff. Boy, did he know his stuff. But Bush won.
Some will say that Gore had the election stolen from him. But even if you believe that, he couldn’t have lost if he had been able to capitalize on his built-in advantages and had successfully prevented the election from becoming close.
What made it close? One poll suggested a possible explanation. It was because W seemed like the kind of guy with whom voters then, back in 2000, which today seems like a million years ago, could see themselves hoisting a few brewskis. Gore wasn’t that kind of guy. Who wants to party with a wonk? (Unless you’re another wonk.) Although Biden clearly knows the issues that he and Palin addressed tonight with greater depth, neither he or the Alaska governor are wonks. They’re likable people, at least if the personas they projected tonight can be believed.
Who Won?: The conventional wisdom is that when one candidate beats expectations and the other meets them, the victory goes to the person who beat the expectations. But I don’t think that conventional wisdom applies here.
Palin is still so new to the national scene that, given her exceptional speech at the Republican National Convention, followed by her bad performances in two major interviews, and now, her excellent showing tonight, the voting public, which seemed to be abandoning her, will withhold judgment of her and her qualifications for the time being.
That in itself is a triumph for the McCain campaign. Had the Katie Couric-interview-iteration of Palin showed up on that debate stage tonight, it would have proven fatal to both McCain’s candidacy and her future as a national figure. As it is, she will fight on to another day.
Button, Button, Where’s the Button?: Hot button issues which have generated much heat and little light–or policy, for that matter–over the past twenty-eight years, were largely absent. Abortion, for example, didn’t come up. Nor did stem cell research.
One such issue did come up: gay marriage. And guess what? The candidates agreed. Both said that there should be full equality and total access to benefits to both heterosexual and homosexual couples living in committed relationships. Both said that marriage should not be redefined to include homosexual couples.
For some who buy into stereotypes of Christians, particularly evangelical or conservative Christians, Palin’s position on this may come as a surprise. But it is perfectly possible for a person to believe that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will and still believe in full civil rights for homosexual couples. That may be a more subtle or nuanced perspective than some may attribute to a Christian, but I see it exemplified in Christians all the time.
The Bottom Line: In my judgment, the only way this vice presidential debate could have changed the results of the November 4, election was if Palin turned in a disastrous performance. She didn’t. Conventional wisdom says that running mates, in the end, don’t have much effect on the outcomes of elections. No doubt the McCain camp is breathing a sigh of relief tonight knowing that, while Palin has undoubtedly won new respect from political pros on both sides of the Blue-Red divide, the election will come down to a choice between Barack Obama and John McCain. Palin is no Dan Quayle.
[I regularly blog here.]