Saturday, October 04, 2008

Sarah Palin Proves She's No Quivering Mass of Jelly.

The much-anticipated VP debate is now history, and the spin cycle has begun. Obviously both sides are proclaiming victory for their candidates. But as I said in my post after the first Presidential showdown, I think talking in terms of overall winners and losers is a bit of a distraction. I believe it's more important to look at expectations and measure performances accordingly. So what were the respective expectations for Biden and Palin? There's no doubt that one of the candidates is credited with experience, knowledge, and a lengthy record of service, while the other is not. Perhaps it was appropriate (as one poster did in a thread on this blog) to characterize Biden as a man with "everything in (his) favor".

So what about Palin? What were people looking for? No doubt a significant portion of America tuned in to see if she would be as inarticulate as she was in the Couric and Gibson interviews. It may not be admirable, but schadenfreude is very much a part of the modern political landscape. Of course the McCain campaign couldn't allow that kind of embarrassment. That's why they fought so hard with the Commission of Presidential Debates to set a very tightly structured format for this debate. They understood from the start that this was the condition that would maximize Palin's ability to deliver the ticket's message. A free-flowing discussion would have been disastrous for Palin.

I clearly communicated my thoughts on this matter in the comment thread of a post from two days ago. I wrote:

"All Palin needs to do is sound reasonably articulate, not make any fatal gaffes, and avoid answering every question by parroting talking points, clich├ęs, and platitudes. She's a former sports broadcaster and beauty queen, and she's used this very strategy to great effect in her Alaskan debates (just YouTube them). If she manages to execute this completely undemanding strategy, her supporters and campaign will declare her a huge winner, the media will go along with it so as not to appear sexist, and viewers with 'concerns' will think that she's not so bad as they feared."

I realized that I had predicted the outcome correctly as soon as Palin, in the midst of dodging another inquiry, said, " And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear". Um, yeah... Exactly. Who cares if it's a "structured debate" when a candidate can simply ignore the questions and talk about whatever he/she wants? No follow-up means no accountability.

So this tactic seems to have worked for the night. Palin was able to continue promoting her GOP-created persona. She was folksy, decidedly not an intellectual, and more interested in her image than the issues themselves. And we'll have to wait a few days before we learn whether or not her audience bought into her act. Certainly she showed herself once again adept at memorizing talking points. But that's not to say that she didn't make any significant gaffes. She was just able to keep a continuous flow of words coming out of her mouth so as to obscure them. Palin was doubly wrong when she tried to claim that "McClellan" (a long-dead US civil war general) said that surge principles would work in Afghanistan. Still, this likely went over the heads of Palin supporters, as well as those still "on the fence".

On the other hand, Joe Biden (who had merely to avoid losing his temper and acting condescending to his opponent) did a stellar job. Viewer polls demonstrate that the vast majority of observers thought that Biden "won" the debate. Still that's likely to be seen as a minor point. The McCain campaign is no doubt expelling a long sigh of relief. Palin didn't collapse into a heap of quivering jelly, and for that she deserves a "Gold Star". All they have to do now is keep her from doing any more interviews with interlocutors who will actually make her answer questions. They'll simply put her on FOX and the Right Wing talk radio circuit. In this respect, Sarah Palin's performance can be called successful. She has transformed herself from being a millstone around the neck of the ticket, and she can now resume her role as "ordinary hockey mom".

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