Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 3, 2008
POLITICS: Palin's Night

Q&A on last night's highly-anticipated Vice Presidential debate:

(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.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income - to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

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.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:30 AM | Politics 2008 | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

Biden has provided an opportunity for the GOP to run ads which absolutely devastate him. His gaffes are jaw dropping. The GOP will never run those ads, however. It might help them win and they never run the ads which would actually help them win.

Posted by: stan at October 3, 2008 11:29 AM

I generally don't watch the debates - I read the transcripts - mainly because I'm deciding to elect a candidate for office, not a debating champ. But I did watch this one because it was my first opportunity to see Palin speak.

Palin did rehabilitate herself after her interview gaffes, which never really concerned me about her ability to hold office. She didn't scare anyone away, but it didn't help that Biden was as polished and smooth as you would expect from a career Washington politician.

Palin didn't seem entirely comfortable, probably because she had to digest so much information prior to the debate and was focusing on keeping it all straight. At times, it didn't appear that she was debating but giving a book report to show everyone what she had learned. Because of this, some of her "folksy" moments seemed unnatural and forced, and I thought the wink was a little weird.

My one concern about Palin is not that she isn't -capable- of holding office or is inexperienced politically, but that her knowledge is very focused and specialized. McCain selected her, apart from campaign strategy, for her experience on energy issues. While I like Palin's integrity, which Crank effectively detailed yesterday, I like to have a generalist rather than a specialist as a potential president. It was evident from the questions that she ducked that she is not well-versed on economic issues, for example.

In any event, this debate could never have swayed me one way or the other unless one of the candidates said something incredibily stupid (which by the way, is probably why so many people tuned in).

Posted by: MVH at October 3, 2008 11:48 AM

Well, candidates say stupid things all the time. We kind of bear wtith the mistakes made in good faith, particularly if these mistakes are made by Democrat candidates.

It was noticed elsewhere that Ifill didn't ask any energy questions. I don't think she was a terrible moderator but I also don't think that omission was any kind of accident.

Posted by: spongeworthy at October 3, 2008 12:28 PM

About Biden,

` the VP may "preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote."`
I'll allow a pass: shoud be
` the VP may "preside over the Senate, [but vote] only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote."`

OTOH, that Lebann thing. Nope. The US and France encouraged the ouster of Hezbollah, but to say we kicked them out? and send in NATO - to do what with the *spit* UN forces? This from "foreign policy expertise" candidate?

Posted by: teqjack at October 3, 2008 12:46 PM

"It was noticed elsewhere that Ifill didn't ask any energy questions. I don't think she was a terrible moderator but I also don't think that omission was any kind of accident."

I'm not sure she needed to given the flow of the debate. Palin brought up the energy issue early on when both candidates were ducking the question on what promises they wouldn't be able to keep, and Biden responded. It was raised again during the discussion on climate change. Ifill tried to cover all the issues she could: taxes, the economy, same-sex marraige, health care, global warming, terrorism, foreign policy in general.

Posted by: MVH at October 3, 2008 1:13 PM

Yes, Ifill asked all the questions the left wanted to hear. Her book will be quite profitable.

I thought Palin did a very good job, but missed opportunities for far stronger answers. Her advisors should have spent more time teaching her the background of the Fannie/Freddie debacle, how they were incouraged by the previous administration to grant more loans regardless of credit worthiness, and how McCain fought to reform them a couple years ago. That would flow nicely into pointing out how much the two GSEs donate to Obama.

By the way, the wear and tear of the campaign is clearly affecting Biden ... or have the bags under his eyes always been that big?

Posted by: CT Ron at October 3, 2008 2:19 PM

The post-debate polls have the Democrats winning both debates by substantial, if not blowout margins. Partisans will always say that their candidate won, the key is how did the undecideds and independents view the performances. And they favored the Democrats both times, so Crank's claim that the Republicans scored small victories both times is a partisan utterance not supported by the polling data. No doubt Palin reclaimed much of her image last night, but that's also testimony to how low the expectations bar had been set, largely by her own making. Biden was brilliant in tone and in substance. Crank does salvage his article at the end by realistically assessing McCain's polling situation as it currently stands. But this idea that the Republicans won small victories in each debate is laughable.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at October 3, 2008 5:10 PM

Here's the problem for Republicans. You can be damned sure (or as Palin would say, "you can bet your sweet bippy") that the campaign is not going to let any journalists interview her on television anymore after the Katie Couric disaster when Palin drew blanks, changed the subject or gave gibberish answers. They may let her interview with the equally moronic Fox News people, like Sean Hannity, but she's off TV for the rest of the campaign. That means the Republicans cannot profit from her passible debate performance, where no one could ask follow-ups and she regurgitated the stuff that the campaign was cramming down her throat for a week.

So, except for campaign appearances for the faithful, Palin's exposure for the next four weeks will be minimal. That leaves McCain, who does not have an engaging personality and does not excite anyone. With Obama breaking away in the polls, expect massive negative advertising against Obama until Election Day. That's the Republicans' only hope.

Posted by: steve at October 3, 2008 5:30 PM

Palin is W with lipstick.
Right down to the stale 8-year old talking points and "tinkerbell" war strategy (we just need to clap louder!).

Posted by: Berto at October 3, 2008 7:10 PM

Biden destroyed her.

And you know it.

Unless, that is, all that "you betcha" and winking crap qualifies one for President of the US. In that event, by all means throw your vote to the Maverick and the Maverickette.

Posted by: Mike at October 3, 2008 7:50 PM

Mike, I disagree, Biden did not destroy her. In fact, she was pretty effective for the first half hour, then it became clear that all she did was repeat that first half hour. Yes she did. Yup. You betcha. Maybe they should get Frances McDormand to do Palin if Tina Fey isn't available.

Crank, asking about how the Vice President will act by asking how your standard bearer (and chief hunter) was is not inside baseball. It shows that in Alaska, at least to its governor, what happens in the lower 48 has little interest to them. So probably she is more ignorant than stupid.

So far, two debates, and we generally get to see where they stand. Could we ask for more?

And if I wanted to vote for a maverick, it would be either James Garner or Mel Gibson.

Posted by: Daryl Rosenblatt at October 3, 2008 8:08 PM

The polls show Biden won because the media told us Biden won.

Would you vote for Jack Kelly?

Posted by: per14 at October 4, 2008 12:31 PM


Don't forget about Tom Cruise for the Maverick vote from the homo-erotic classic "Top Gun".

Posted by: jim at October 4, 2008 3:55 PM

I'm so glad I chose to watch to watch the Dodgers from 1st to last pitch Thursday night. All of the replays of the depate indicate to me that even the Cubs fielded better than Palin.

Posted by: Vigilante at October 4, 2008 8:13 PM


Posted by: Vigilante at October 4, 2008 8:15 PM

Although I am not a Republican, I do enjoy your political analysis most of the time. Sir, you are too bright and knowledgeable to be primping Sarah Palin. Has she won six elections -- yes, by being opportunistic in supporting the cause that was electable at that time, even when it went against her previous record. She may be a formidable opponent in the future, but you cannot convince me that a choice of Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman would not have been a better choice for this campaign. Hell, Mitt Romney would have been a better choice for this campaign. She simply is not ready for primetime.

Also, the reason Ifill cut her off when she was "on a roll" was that she didn't answer the question asked of her. Something she did all night long. At one point she was asked a question and then just decided to talk about whatever she wanted to by "addressing the American People". That is a classic Rove tactic of controlling the topics and controlling what questions will and will not be answered.

Posted by: Eric Johnson at October 6, 2008 11:03 PM
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