Both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin performed well in the debate last night, meeting their respective challenges. Biden showed off his policy fluency, touted his running mate's message of "fundamental change," treated Palin with respect even when contradicting her (thus avoiding the charge of sexist bullying), and over a span of 90 minutes said nothing that could be construed as a gaffe. As for Palin, she was verbally crisp (for a change), efficiently on message about McCain, relentlessly assertive in her criticisms of the Democratic ticket, and relentlessly folksy.
Folksy, for sure: "...go to a kid's soccer game...I betcha....darn right it was the predatory lenders...Joe six pack...hockey moms across the nation...a heckuva lot...darn right we need tax relief...now doggone it..."
After awhile, I started to think I was listening to Marge Gunderson, the pregnant hick cop in Fargo.
All told, Palin excelled to the best of her abilities - a welcome respite for worried Republican partisans. But, given Biden's solid performance (particularly during the final 30 minutes), it's doubtful that Palin changed the dynamics of a race that appears, by every objective polling measure, to be tilting increasingly Democratic. Indeed, Biden was deemed the clear winner of the debate in polls conducted last night by CNN and ABC. Even if those double-digit margins diminish over the next 48 hours, it's hard to imagine that Palin will ultimately succeed in shifting momentum to McCain.
She gave it her best effort, aided by two factors. Gwen Ifill, the moderator, let her off easy. When Palin didn't feel like answering the question posed to her, Ifill didn't try to pin her down. Perhaps this was because Palin's allies had pre-spun the debate with their insinuations that Ifill was in the tank for Barack Obama, and as a result Ifill wanted to bend over backwards to be fair. Whatever the reason, the result was a break for Palin. At one point, she simply told Biden, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear."
Her dismissive stance was particularly useful when Ifill asked a good question about whether Palin agrees with Dick Cheney's concept of a...shall we say...vigorous vice presidency. Palin responded with evasive gibberish: "Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation." There was no follow up from Ifill. Granted, the rules for this debate supposedly barred her from following up, but there are many ways for a moderator to pursue an evasive candidate - by reminding viewers that a question was not answered, or by subsequently rephrasing the question.
The second factor aiding Palin was gender-based. Palin was free to go after Biden (male), but if Biden went after Palin (female), he risked looking like a bully. So he was forced to spend much of his time in reactive mode, seeking to fend off her attacks ("The charge is absolutely not true...That is simply not true"). Clearly she was trying to roil him to the point where he'd commit a verbal miscue worthy of repeated video replay. He didn't take the bait - his tone was calm, his manner was firm - but no debater can get maximum mileage by playing defense. (He was even reactive on the folksy stuff. She led with hockey moms and Joe six pack; he came back later with Katy's Diner and Home Depot.)
Palin demonstrated in this debate that she has estimable communication skills. Millions of viewers undoubtedly fixated on her perky delivery - which is lucky for her, given the fact that her blatant falsehoods were so numerous. When falsehoods are delivered with a smile, many viewers will simply absorb them and remember the smile. I'm not going to list them all, because I've dealt with so many of them at length in this space before - such as the fakery about Obama supposedly voting for higher taxes "94 times," and the fakery about Obama supposedly voting to raise taxes on people making $42,000, and the tall tale about how McCain supposedly "sounded that warning bell" on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back in 2006, whereas, in reality, McCain finally signed on to an oversight bill 16 months after its initial Senate sponsors had rung the bell.
But three other falsehoods are worth recounting. Palin insisted, for instance, that Biden was a hawk on Iraq, just like McCain, until the '08 campaign commenced; as she told Biden, "you had supported John McCain's military strategies pretty adamantly until this race." That charge can charitably be described as total baloney. When President Bush announced his plans for the troop surge, shortly after the '06 elections, McCain signed on in full support. Biden did the opposite; as the new Foreign Relations Committee chairman in 2007, he and his invited witnesses denounced the move in a series of hearings.
Palin also recycled the persistent McCain falsehood about how U.S. troop levels in Iraq supposedly have been drawn down to "pre-surge levels." This has been factually refuted many times - when Bush leaves office, there will be roughly 3000 more soldiers on the ground than before the surge - but Palin's handlers probably figured that the fakery would work anew if delivered by a folksy messenger.
Meanwhile, on the domestic falsehood front, Palin said this to Biden: "Now, you said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that's not patriotic." But Biden has never said that paying higher taxes in patriotic (Palin implied that Biden believes this as a matter of principle), nor that he specifically views higher middle-class taxes as patriotic (as Palin's second sentence implied). During an interview two weeks ago with ABC News, Biden merely stated that Americans earning more than $250,000 annually should be prepared to give up their Bush tax cuts, for the common good: "It’s time to be patriotic, time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut.”
Biden had a few falsehoods of his own. He kept insisting that McCain has voted "20 times" against alternative energy, whereas the nonpartisan watchdogs at factcheck.org believe that the real number is roughly half that large. He also recycled an old Obama charge about how McCain supposedly wants to deregulate the entire "health care industry," whereas in reality McCain was only talking (in one line of a magazine story) about making it easier for people to purchase health care across state lines. But, ultimately, Biden had the wind at his back. He had the advantage of framing this election as a referendum on eight years of Republican rule ("the economic policies of the past eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had"), and making his pitch to an electorate that seems increasingly primed for change.
Palin tried to parry this strategy in folksy fashion, mixing her Marge with a Reagan oldie but goodie - "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead" - but what she (and her handlers) appear to be forgetting is that Reagan won his race in 1980 by pointing the electorate backwards to the failings of Jimmy Carter's Democratic administration. An election is typically a referendum on the in party, and Sarah Palin is too ill-qualified to alter that dynamic all by herself; indeed, the CNN/Opinion Research poll reports that a majority of Americans questioned her fitness before the debate, and a majority still questioned her fitness afterwards.
In political terms, she at least staunched her bleeding, but she's not credible enough to close the sale for McCain. That job is his alone.