Monday, October 6, 2008

TPH: The Most Gracious and Engaging VP Debate

The Political Hoedown
VP Debate/Smackdown

Last Thursday night's Vice-Presidential Debate between Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin was nothing short of historic, and at the least, entertaining. Much like with the first Presidential debate, there's an argument over who one or if you could say either did. As with that debate, where the tie is given to the rookie, so must it be here. Sarah Palin did not stumble over herself, contradict basic sentence structure or blow-up; her performance, judged impartially, was very good. Point to her.

But let's examine the meat-and-potatoes of what is the only contest between these two engaging opponents before getting into the whys and wherefores of Palin's "victory."


Last time we met about a debate, I looked at each candidate separately. That won't be the case today. These two played off each other in a congenial, yet sparring manner that exemplified what civil debate could be. I would be remiss if separated them, especially since this is their only time together. They must be weighed side by side.

Hosted at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, by Gwen Ifill, the debate began promptly and ended on time. No surprises in format, and the blatant partisanship of the moderator, who has a book coming out called "The Breakthrough: ...and Race in the Age of Obama," wasn't an issue. She did interrupt Palin to say her time was up, forcefully, but let Biden talk over her a few minutes later when she tried the same. Granted, he was worked up and not listening to anyone, but "fair play" isn't just a phrase.

One of the first attacks levied against Palin (McCain) was the "fundamentals" line the Arizona Senator has bandied about the last few wees ("The fundamentals of our economy are strong."). The attack was rejoined by Palin and they were off, rarely letting up in intensity or personality over the next ninety minutes.

Though it sounds cynical, or demeaning, there was a palpable relief that Gov. Palin used numbers in her answers, not relying on soft economic statements by hard facts. It's a sort of criticism Bush received in years past, that Palin had fallen victim to and needed to correct. On the other side of things, Biden remained on an even keel for the most part, not rambling, as he can, into barely related armchair tangents that have stunted his ability as a campaigner the last year.

But his verbosity wasn't a handicap here, and he used his honed speaking ability to sound less like a windbag than ever, but he couldn't resist referring to himself in the third person a few times.

Palin, needed every word to count, did repeat a few. If you were playing a drinking game to the number of times she said "maverick" (6; Biden said it 9 times), you'd have had a good buzz going by the end.

Ah, but seriously.

Biden did a superior job than Obama. The ticket should be flipped, by all rights. He made a better case for linking Bush and McCain and utilizing the under-referenced Cheney (McCain and Palin are in "lock-step with Dick Cheney), even if many of the votes he criticizes McCain for, he supported. That is a big weakness with a long record, supporting the same thing as your opponents, and trying to talk around that (I/he was for it before I/he was against it). Biden isn't exactly liberal, either. He's a relatively conservative Democrat by Obama's standards, and that might be why he performed so poorly in the primaries, because he couldn't radicalize the base like Obama was able to, couldn't present a clear, defined alternative to conservative politics.

To be fair, Palin is built up as the paragon of conservativeness, but she's hardly Jerry Falwell. Interesting that she admitted, slightly grudgingly, that she supports equal civil, contractual rights for gay couples, same as Biden and Obama. More interesting, how vigorous Biden's denunciation of gay marriage was, and how he went out of his way to remind "middle America" that marriage, as defined in popular and historic opinion, is between a man and a woman. I'd be surprised if the SanFran Dem set was happy with such a response. To Palin again, her "conservative" credentials are clear, but she's hardly the arch-conservative the media has painted her to be. I think the same-sex answer, and her reluctance to admit that she sympathizes more than Redneck Joe Six-pack with the plight of gays and lesbians, underscores progressive thinking. Not entirely, no no no, but to a degree.

And speaking of Joe Six-pack, she sure did her level-best to link herself to middle America, rightly so. She is relatable, with a story that mirrors many families', and her "Aw shucks" demeanor, so much a detriment in urban and East Coast districts, rings a little true out beyond the city limits. Is that who we want as Number 2 in the White House? Debatable, but she isn't fighting alone to be seen as the middle-class candidate.

Biden schmalzed around too, lots of small town Pennsylvania lines, lots of Scranton and calling his sons "champ." He claimed he hangs around Home Depot a lot (you're kidding, right?) and often talks issues at the "local gas station." His community in Delaware, he claims, is also small-town, middle class America and we should know he still lives among the grunts and peons and laborers, etc...though it's safe to say his secluded home at the end of a long-drive, replete with pool, few neighbors and miles of road before he approaches the sprawl of Wilmington isn't exactly "roughing it."

In a shock to me, Biden's weaknesses were in appearing older than McCain and not offering a defense of his anti-Obama statements (and ideas) from the primaries ("He's not ready to be commander-in-chief."). I don't want to spend a lot of time on appearance, but he didn't always look good. There were throbbing veings at his temples when Palin really riled him up, his eyes took on that small, glassy stare of the elderly and his voice! This isn't a weak-voiced man, but too often it faded to a husky fraction of what it could be. Remember, he is the guy who had brain aneurysms in the early 90s - a far more difficult thing to actively survive than skin cancer.

More damning than any health perception could be was his refusal to address his barbs against Obama spoken during late 2007 and early 2008, essentially saying he was wildly inexperienced and not ready to lead, domestically or militarily. It almost seems like Biden has sacrificed many of his positions to accommodate himself to Obama's worldview, a point Palin bitingly made (and again, went unanswered). Further aggravating the ticket, Biden pointed out the sort of role he'd play as VP.

In pretty bald terms, Biden's opinion of his role as Obama's VP was as point-man for legislation, in on all decisions and a partner in executive matters. He uses kinder, gentler wording, but it's the same post as Cheney holds now: the voice behind the throne, the puppet master. The one who has the knowledge to make the decisions and the experience and contacts to get the policies pushed through. It was a stunning attack on Obama, that his running mate so vocally stated he wasn't able to make decisions, to promote policy or effectively govern without him. How this hasn't gotten more play is beyond me, as it is a repudiation of Obama and Biden and the Democratic Party's stance against Cheney and his abuse of power.

VP as an advisory position is also great, and it's that role that Biden will take - possibly more so than any other VP since, well...Cheney. Admit he has more experience than Barack and is needed to help with complicated issues.

It was his bold wording, not his intent, that I thought alarming for Obama's credibility as a leader. Because in the end, the President has to stand alone when he goes to the country and says, "We need to do this, and it might sting a little."

Don't think I'll spare the rod when it comes to Palin (minds out of gutters). She has no capacity to dovetail thoughts. When moving from one topic to another, she shifted without a clutch and it showed in awkward wording and delivery. No more was this more apparent than when trying to defend the "finger-pointing backwards" of Biden, when the Senator repeatedly tried to tie McCain to every Bush/bad decision in the last eight years.

A suggestion I'd have for her: go to a few catch-all news websites to read stories of the day so you can merge breaking stories with canned and studied responses. You can read editorials written by your supporters that offer those segues you need between telling Biden he's wrong to look back and confirming that McCain has broken with Bush on key points and will break further with over the next four years. Her vulnerability is in her very small town-ness that defines her to so many, a narrow worldview that hinders broad discussion of the spectrum of issues.

Energy was her bailiwick Thursday, foreign policy more Biden's. But both have a clear and firm grasp on their strong suits. An argument could be made that Obama is a domestic policy generalist and a foreign policy absentee voter - he has lots of plans for the former without much more than rhetoric on the latter. Biden focuses foreign policy to real terms, nailing responses sure to please a lot of average households. Palin, understanding McCain's aversion to energy and "down home" politics in favor of foreign and military policy, unleashed a salvo of pro-energy answers that, while not always related to the question, boldly underlined her credentials where gas, heating oil and dollars headed abroad are concerned.

She slammed the media, looked a little annoyed and spoke wearily at times (We've been here before, Joe...) but never lost that spark.

Joe Biden channeled Ed Asner a few times, coming off temperamental at times, especially when he laid into the "maverick" status McCain touts.

One final bit on Biden, and this is more commentary: in talking about opinions he's changed his mind about, he addressed judicial appointees. His answer might be the most dangerous thing said this election. He advocated political ideology as a determinant of a judge's worth on the bench, not their interpretation of the Constitution, not their scholarly past or prior cases. This is, in essence, a clear desire on Biden's (and Obama's) part to stack the Supreme Court with justices who will legislate from the bench, talking away Congress' power - with no oversight - and remanding their true judicial authority to the back-burner.

From an e-mail to some friends:

It would be enlightening, someday, to read and see the prep notes both had for the debate, and to see what they were jotting away about during their opponent's turn. How much did each have prepared going in, by the way of "canned" answers? We know, in the first debate, that Obama had more than McCain, but that was in his favor, keeping a clearer message and not getting caught in the morass of his own inexperience. Certainly Palin had more pre-written, or memorized, lines about certain topics and a strategy to bring things back to her strengths - middle class, energy, reform.

By any measure this debate was a referendum on Palin, her ability to think on her feet, frame original responses - all candidates have cobbled some answers from stump speeches and none of the four this year are any different - around core principles and policy. She knows energy better than Biden, but that comes from her experience in the sector. He knows constitutional law. Yes, he has more experience than she does; by being alive some two decades more, I'd hope so. But it wasn't a negative for her, as she got him to mumble responses, fall back on stump positions and admit that the two of them see eye to eye on a lot of issues.

Their back-and-forths were far more revealing about either candidate than expected, showing progressivism on both sides, as well as a tendency towards conservatism. Biden is no bleeding-heart liberal, like Obama. Palin might not like gay "marriage" but when it comes to civil contracts, her state supports them for all couples, as does she.

I thought it was a terrific debate, perhaps showing us the real ticket this year should be the bi-partisan Biden/Palin. Similar stances, similar backgrounds, middle-class, family-oriented, not high-falluting intellectuals but still crisp on the issues and policies. It would have been the perfect Progressive ticket.

No serious gaffes, a few pronunciation errors on both parts, some padding of records and distorting of opponents - in all, a better, cleaner debate than last Friday's.

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin were, despite the hostile waters they navigated, friendly to the last, getting their whole families on stage in a big group hug. It was heartening to see, and made me wonder what a Biden/Palin ticket would be like. These two really did agree on a number of issues throughout the night and but their principles to shame when it came to cordiality.


The next debate is tomorrow, a town hall style Q & A that promises...what? Quick wit? Gotcha questions? That sledgehammer moment when one candidate verbally slaps the other into place?

I look for honesty in the answers, and decency when at all possible. The mud that each candidate is slogging through doesn't look pretty on them, nor do I like to be slathered with it when they pontificate and gesticulate madly about the other running a negative campaign. I hope that tomorrow brings some uplift, some positive rejoinders.

They damn well better learn a lesson from Joe and Sarah Middle-America, that you can disagree without losing your humanity.


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