I decided to watch the Biden-Palin debate tonight just to see how maddening it could be.
I suspected that Biden could have a hard time of it. Why? Just too many ways he could blow it. He stepped up to the podium with greater expectations behind him—with a reputation as an experienced politician and debater.
I could not have had lower expectations of Palin. She had little to lose. Not much of a political record to attack. A political reputation, such as it is, as speedily thrown together as a Tastee Freeze franchise.
Since both candidates have a tendency to blurt out chopped word salads when cornered, the prospects of an enlightening debate did not look bright.
Biden’s best bet tonight was to put Palin on defense. As we have seen over the past weeks, on those rare occasions when she consented to an interview, Palin turns to mush when faced with skepticism or even direct questioning on matters of fact. On offense, she can be offensive, even funny.
Biden did nothing to throw Palin off tonight. Both candidates probably addressed their constituents effectively, but, to my eyes, Biden won the evening—clear, assertive, yet restrained, and demonstrating much more flexibility of mind than Palin, who obviously strained to turn her remarks towards rehearsed talking points.
Palin, all nervous energy and betcha’s, enthusiastically inflected every rambling sentence as if she were describing how to make a Halloween costume for your pet. Surely, some viewers might find such chirpiness endearing, but I heard loud and clear the shrill scolding tone underneath.
Biden pointed up McCain’s inconsistencies, Obama’s strengths, and Palin’s failure to respond directly to the questions posed. He exhibited, in fact, the kind of assertiveness I would like Obama to have shown in his debate last week. I’d give him major points for turning the talk to Iraq and health care, perhaps the two most important issues the nation faces, apart perhaps from the faltering economy.
As Palin laid on her folksy routine thicker and thicker, Biden flashed dazzling smiles that suggested genuine amusement at Palin’s high-strung style. I believed him when, in his closing remarks, he expressed pleasure in getting to meet her at last.
Palin conveyed more competence here than she has been able to show over the past month. She was most effective early in the evening, foregrounding historic differences between Biden and Obama, particularly concerning the war in Iraq. Biden, in turn, effectively drove home that McCain’s foreign policy views are inseparable from Bush’s.
Both candidates firmly oppose “gay marriage.” On same sex couples’ rights, Palin backed away from the moderator’s suggestion about extending Alaska’s policy of civil rights for gays and lesbians to the nation as a whole. She urged “tolerance,” instead—though, oddly emphasizing that many of her close, respected friends disagreed with her on this point. Why the eagerness to identify intolerant homophobes in her inner circle?
Palin succeeded, in her rambling, sometimes shrill way, in presenting herself as a positive, bright politician. However, nothing she said suggests that she’s prepared for high federal office. Nervously speeding through her talking points, she could not convey much sincerity or self-assurance; to her credit, she was well prepared, but the preparation was all too close to the surface.
Biden, however, was a revelation, presidential in his bearing, keen in his knowledge of foreign policy and sympathetic to the hardships working-class Americans have felt in the past eight years.
If either debater proved the worthiness of his or her VP nomination and reflected well on the judgment of his or her running mate, it was Biden.