Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 3, 2008
POLITICS: Palin's Night
(1) Is Sarah Palin a Blithering Moron?
Why no, in fact; amazingly, it turns out that a politician who has won six elections, served in public office for 13 years, participated in more than a dozen debates for statewide office two years ago and is the most popular Governor in the nation is actually perfectly capable of handling herself on her feet. But thanks anyway to those of you who worked so hard to make that the question everyone was asking and to reset expectations to exactly where they were entering her convention speech. The Left didn't see that they were marching into a trap in 2004, but then they keep making the same mistake year after year after year even when we are telling them to their faces what they are doing.
Palin had one hit-and-miss interview with Charlie Gibson and a bad one with Katie Couric, but very few presidential candidates, even successful ones, have avoided having those kinds of days (Obama, for example, has often been tongue-tied and stammering in interviews; his debate performance Friday was well above his usual standards). That said, the gaps in her knowledge of national politics is an object lesson in why Governors, often elected to the Presidency, are rarely elected Vice President (Spiro Agnew is the only one since Coolidge).
Palin wasn't quite the masterful populist she is on the stump or was at the Convention, but she was close. There were a few moments of fractured grammar ("What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?"), a few episodes of falling back on generalities, and of course more than a few missed opportunities, but overall her performance was quite good indeed, and got back to the roots of why she's such an effective politician. Some of that is mannerism - Biden talked to the moderator, Palin to the camera, and Palin was confident and bouyant, even on one occasion winking at the audience - some is her down-to-earth persona and ability to handle hot-button issues with a low-key, conciliatory tone, and some is simply the willingness to keep returning to hammer home a core theme, which in this case first and foremost was Obama's plans to jack up taxes in the teeth of an oncoming recession (ironically, Biden pretty much fatally undermined the fiscal plausibility of his ticket's tax hike strategy by repeatedly reasserting how few people it would be aimed at. That's exactly why nobody who is remotely familiar with Democratic politicians or with Obama's spending plans expects the lower limits on the tax plan to hold). There were no awkward pauses, no gaffes, nowhere she looked unprepared - she changed the subject on a number of occasions, but like McCain in the first debate, it had the effect of forcing Biden (who like Obama has a lawyer's inability to resist responding to everything) to play on her turf.
Of course, Palin's tendency to use generalities will come in for fire from the people who spent months swooning whenever Barack Obama read the words "hope" and "change" off his TelePrompter, but that can't be helped.
Some of Palin's best moments, despite the less than perfect syntax, came on things like global warming and same-sex marriage, where she was able to articulate positions that have one foot firmly planted in the conservative camp but with a nod to moderate positions as well. And of course, she again resisted efforts to take Henry Kissinger's name in vain - it's hilarious to me that Kissinger, of all people, is still an issue in multiple presidential debates 32 years after leaving office (then again, Biden brought up Mike Mansfield). And she handled pretty much all of the foreign policy questions flawlessly, threw some good shots at Biden over his past criticisms of Obama (unfortunately we didn't get to hear him put on the spot about his nutty plan to cut Iraq into three separate countries). She was very effective in arguing that Biden is running against Bush instead of the actual ticket ("there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.") The one trap she generally avoided being baited into was testing the depth of her knowledge of McCain's 26-year legislative voting record.
The lowlight of Palin's performance for me, at least, was when she kept saying that "there was greed and there is corruption on Wall Street. And we need to stop that." Threatening to punish Wall Street after the events of the past month is like threatening to punish the Branch Davidians after Waco. Another discordant note, but an example of how Palin was more liberated last night, was on education, where her answer was all about teacher salaries, more funding and loosening the standards of No Child Left Behind - in contrast to McCain's platform, laid out in detail in his Convention speech but basically ignored since then, of school choice, standards and accountability.
Palin benefits, of course, from being the running mate, so she doesn't have to carry as much of the argumentative, persuasive load. But she did a good job last night.
(2) Was Joe Biden...Joe Biden?
Surprisingly no, and in ways that were both good and bad for him. Stylistically, Biden seemed old, tired and grumpy; Biden can be quite charming and very much the happy warrior himself, and there was little of that in evidence. The mike picked him up emitting Al Gore-style exasperated sighs while Palin was talking on one or two occasions. Like McCain on Friday, he warmed up (or more properly, thawed out) as the evening went along. On the upside, while Biden had some moments that were amusing to knowledgeable viewers, he didn't really produce any of the gasp-inducing gaffes that have been his signature for so many years, and of course, like McCain, he wore the mantle of his long experience effortlessly.
Although this debate was, like the first one, quite lively, it was also considerably more detatched from the truth, and Biden was mainly at fault for that - hammering John McCain inaccurately for being anti-regulation; falsely claiming that Obama's Iraq plan was the "same plan that Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq and George Bush are now negotiating," when Obama's plan called for complete withdrawal by March 2008; confusing a windfall profits tax with a severance tax; claiming, absurdly, that McCain was voting to cut off funding for the Iraq War when he voted against an amendment to a funding bill. And when Biden said, "[t]hat's the fundamental change Barack Obama and I will be bring to this party, not questioning other people's motives," well, he must not have read Obama's 2002 war speech, in which Obama did just that as the centerpiece of his argument:
What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
Biden also probably went a bit too far in suggesting that Obama needed him as training wheels:
Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he'll be making, I'll be sitting in the room to give my best advice.
One of the more jarring moments, and maybe people at home didn't pick this up, was when Biden suggested that we should have repeated Reagan's greatest mistake (one McCain made a point of noting his 1983 opposition to) and sent troops into Lebanon:
When we kicked -- along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, "Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know -- if you don't, Hezbollah will control it."
And I think Biden overreached in his assumption that Americans are opposed to all of Bush's foreign policy; I suspect even among people who don't like the Iraq War you'd find a fair amount of support for his approach to Iran, Israel, Pakistan, etc. That said, if I was the McCain campaign, the commercial I'd want to cut of Biden was this line about foreign policy: "Talk. Talk. Talk." Well, there's your Obama foreign policy in a nutshell.
(3) Was Gwen Ifill Biased?
Ifill wasn't a terrible moderator the way Chris Matthews was during the primaries, nor had I expected her to be based on the Cheney-Edwards debate four years ago. Still, you would not have had a ton of difficulty figuring out whose side her sympathies lay with. Biden got the last word in and overran his time finishing a sentence an astounding number of times, whereas she cut Palin off at the knees in mid-sentence when Palin was on a roll reciting examples of McCain's push for more regulations: "Look at the tobacco industry. Look at campaign finance reform...." Or when she sneered at Palin, "Governor, are you interested in defending Sen. McCain's health care plan?" And she did ask one truly awful question:
Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?
This was a terrible question because it's so inside-baseball, relating to an arcane legal dispute nobody much follows who isn't an obsessive political junkie. If she wanted to ask a more open-ended question about Cheney's view of executive power and secrecy, that might have been enlightening. As it was, it was Biden who got his answer all wrong - besides asserting incorrectly that the executive power is set forth in Article I of the Constitution (maybe Biden needs 36 more years in the Senate to get up to speed on that one) and that the VP may "preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote." That's not quite as bad as former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson not knowing the permanent members of the UN Security Council, but it's staggering that a guy who has been in the Senate that long and spent years heading the Judiciary Committee and grilling Supreme Court nominees would blow such basic concepts of constitutional law.
(4) Will It Matter?
Let's be frank here: McCain is now behind in all the important polls, and has lost significant ground since his high point around September 12-14. The overwhelming reason for this has been the credit crisis that has been the financial equivalent of the Madrid train bombing, working naturally against the party in power in the White House pretty much regardless of all other facts and circumstances, and pretty much sweeping consideration of every other issue out of the spotlight. The drawing out of the bailout debate has only worked to the Democrats' advantage. With a month to go in the race and a fair amount of additional things that could happen, it's premature to declare that this is the end of the line, but it does mean that McCain needs game-changing events; the ticket just scoring two more narrow debate victories like the first two won't be enough unless we get another external shock to the system and/or Obama does something really stupid. Of course, that was really never possible with this debate, since there was no realistic way to mortally wound Obama's ticket by something Biden did; the best Republicans could hope for was to reestablish Gov. Palin, and that worked out pretty much as well as one could have hoped. Which leaves to McCain the job of taking out Obama.