Expectations for the vice-presidential debate had been lowered so much that by the time the candidates took the stage, pundits could spin a win for Sarah Palin out of her managing to speak in complete sentences.
Her performance was better than expected, with facts to back up some of her answers and a clear comfort in front of the cameras. At the end, however, she still sounded like she’d crammed a bunch of talking points into her head and had little to say outside of that.
Palin is fast becoming as polarizing a candidate as the current vice-president, Dick Cheney.
On MSNBC, Republican strategist Mike Murphy pointed out that if you liked her before the debate, you liked her more after it, and if you already disliked her, you disliked her twice as much after the debate.
She blatantly told debate moderator Gwen Ifill that she wasn’t going to answer her questions, and repeated talking points on energy and taxes, peppering her sentences with right-wing dogwhistles like “class warfare,” “job creation,” “Washington outsider,” “mainstream media,” “second Holocaust,” and “East coast politicians,” as well as repeated references to herself and John McCain as “mavericks.”
But her faux-folksiness and venomous words spoken in a good-natured voice didn’t play well. After a while, she sounded both condescending and uninformed, a bad combination, and her staring into the camera looked less like a direct address to the American people and more like a desperate look for a teleprompter that wasn’t there.
McCain scored points in the first presidential debate early on by spinning questions on the economy to talk about government spending, and Palin did the same thing, but her rote answers came up empty by the time she attempted to talk foreign policy. She did correctly pronounce “Ahmadinejad,” which McCain was unable to do, but made herself look ridiculous when she mentioned a “safe stable way” to use “nukyeler” weapons. Nuclear weapons are inherently unsafe and unstable, Governor Palin.
Also unsafe is the idea, broached by Palin, that the office of the vice-president actually has powers outside of the executive branch. In essence, she argued that not only would she have influence like that of Dick Cheney, widely viewed as the most powerful vice president in history, but that she might even have more.
In contrast, Joe Biden was concise, pleasant, but did not allow his opponent to get away with anything. Biden’s reputation before this campaign was as a walking gaffe machine who loved the sound of his own voice, but early on in the Democratic primary debates he actually distinguished himself by riffing on that persona and managing short, funny answers to difficult questions.
Here he was no different. In the age of sound-bite politics, both candidates were speaking in talking points, but Biden’s were backed up with facts and numbers.
FactCheck.org does point out that on a couple of the bills Biden claimed McCain voted against, McCain was actually not present for, that Palin mispronounced the name of the general in charge in Afghanistan, and that Obama did not vote to raise taxes on families making $42,000 a year as it was claimed.
Biden took the opportunity to hammer McCain, leaving Palin pretty much out of the debate, though at one point jabbing her with the note that she has little policy of her own. On health care policy, Biden made sure to bring up McCain’s proposal to tax employee health benefits to pay for his $5000 tax credit for insurance.
His sincerity on the war served Biden well, and his best point of the night came when in response to Palin’s comments on being a mom Biden disputed “the notion that because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids,” reminding the audience that he raised his sons alone after the death of his first wife.
This is what Biden was chosen for. He is a hardworking single dad, a family man whose personal credentials are as impeccable as Obama’s own, but he also comes from whitebread Scranton, Pennsylvania, has a son going to Iraq, and looks like the guy next door. On this level, Biden delivered.
Palin also delivered on McCain’s investment in her: she mentioned all the good right-wing talking points and didn’t let Biden intimidate her. Yet since the biggest reason she was added to the ticket was the simple fact that she is a woman, she didn’t have much work to do to live up to expectations.
It remains to be seen which down-home persona Americans relate to more, but I’d be willing to bet that most Americans will agree with Pennsylvania resident Wendy Borst, who said, “Palin sounds like she’s talking to children. That offends me as a voter.”