Vice-Presidential Debate: Palin Bounces Back!

I wish all debates would be as interesting, exciting, & as fun – yes, fun! – just like last night’s debate between Democrat Joe Biden & Republican Sarah Palin. The most striking thing about the debate was the level of civility each politician reciprocated to each other even as each one jabbed the positions held by the other. Gwen Ifill moderated the debate like a true professional & the audience couldn’t help but audibly react (usually through laughter) at some of the quips spoken by either Biden & Palin.

Both candidates showed discipline in sticking to their respective talking points. Biden was very effective in trying to link Republican Presidential candidate John McCain to the Bush Administration. He cherry-picked McCain’s record & used certain votes against the former POW to illustrate that McCain was no “change” agent & that his votes reflected a mentality which aided & abetted the Bush regime.

Palin wasn’t as eloquent as Biden in defending McCain & at times she sounded like a broken record in the amount of times she spoke of herself & McCain as reformers & “mavericks”. However her language was clear, straighforward, & free from the wonkishness that at times characterized Biden’s speech patterns.

Palin also managed to get in a few digs against Democrat Presidential candidate Barack Obama by using Biden’s own past statements critical of Obama (uttered during the Democrat primary) against the Democrat ticket. Biden blustered his riposte (as only Joe can) & at times sighed (though not as loudly or as annoyingly as Al Gore) but never gave a convincing explanation, for example, on why he thought Obama NOW had theexperience & gravitas to be POTUS when months ago Biden had thought otherwise.

Biden was effective attributing blame to the GOP for the current financial crisis due in part to Palin’s agreement that Wall Street “greed” contributed to the problem without mentioning the equally culpable Democrats who gave aid & comfort to such GSEs as Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac. Biden’s attacks on deregulation were ignored by Palin (a mistake in my view). He gingerly tried to keep his focus on the middle class when asked if selective taxation of some groups (the “wealthy,” for example) was justified but hinted at supporting the usual class warfare bromides of his party. Palin was quick to mock Biden’s view that paying higher taxes was “patriotic” & reiterated her support for tax cuts & reduced spending.

Palin’s defense of McCain’s health care proposals brought a clever retort from Biden (calling such plans the “ultimate Bridge to Nowhere”). Biden also skillfully parlayed a divide & conquer strategy at one point regarding the question on energy by blasting McCain’s past votes which favored Big Oil while at the same time praising Palin for standing up against Big Oil. Palin ignored the feint & reiterated her contention that energy independence was as an essential national security issue as it was a domestic one.

Biden contended that climate change was primarily man-made & that the federal government had an obligation to push alternative forms of energy. He mocked the Republican mantra of “Drill! Drill! Drill!” as a myopic, short term fix for a long term problem. Palin countered by telling Biden that “Drill! Drill! Drill!” was a mantra she was hearing from average voters – not just Republican activists. She chided the Democrat ticket for dragging its feet on promulgating a more domestic approach to oil drilling.

The question posed by Ifill regarding benefits for same-sex partners provided a rare opportunity for voters to witness the suppleness of Palin’s thought process. Palin made it a point to draw a distinction between said benefits (for) & “gay marriage” (against). The distinction made by Palin prompted Ifill to ask Biden where he & Obama stood on “gay marriage” & Biden said the ticket was opposed to it. The exchange provided an opportunity for Palin to come across as a moderate on the issue.

Biden & Palin drew very clear distinctions regarding America’s future involvement in Iraq. Palin said any premature retreat was tantamount to a “white flag.” She praised McCain’s role in “The Surge” & felt a similar application of it (contextualized, of course) would be effective in Afghanistan. Biden mocked McCain’s past comments on Iraq but didn’t provide a forceful rebuke against “The Surge” (in fact he seemed to contradict himself) nor did he take issue with the “white flag” charge. Both candidates agreed that a nuclearized Iran & an unstable Pakistan would be considered threats to American interests. Palin used this moment to chastize Obama’s “bad judgement” regarding The One’s desire to meet “without preconditions” America’s enemies – especially the Iranians; Biden parried the thrust of her critique by lecturing her on the importance of diplomacy (& its bipartisan application) but failed to rebut her implicit charge that Obama would essentially be too soft to be the country’s Commander-in-Chief.

Regarding the question of whether or not the Bush Adminstration was “right or wrong” in the Middle East, Palin ignored the question & focused on praising America’s relationship with Israel & hoped to achieve a lasting peace between Jews & Palestinians through the “two state” negotiation process. Biden described himself as a “passionate” supporter of Israel & tried to blame the Bush Administration for the raised stature of Hamas, Hezbollah, & Iran. Palin again ignored the point of Biden’s critique (even though he infered some good points about Iran’s heightened influence due to the removal of Iraq as an Arab counterweight to the hegemonic desires of the Persians); she instead used the opportunity to deliver a rather bizarre cheerleader-styled pep talk about ending the “finger-pointing” & looking to a future of “change” from the GOP ticket. Biden had a neat little retort when he said that “past is prologue” & once again inferred that a McCain presidency would essentially be the third term of the Bush Administration.

On the question of whether or not America “has the stomach” for present & future foreign interventions, Biden said that a “fine line” justified some interventions & not others. He cited with pride his support for intervening in the Balkins, he tried to parse his initial support of the Iraq War with his later criticisms of its mismanagement/endgame, & he tried to justify an interventionistic approach to the genocide in Dafur. Palin mocked Biden’s defense of his Iraq vote though she agreed with him on Dafur & informed the audience that as Governor of Alaska she’s currently in the process of getting the state to divest itself from any connection to Sudan as long as its murderous regime continues its support of the genocide in Dafur.

Both canidates hoped that neither of them would have to step up to the presidency should either McCain or Obama die in office. Should such an unthinkable scenario occur, both candidates pledged to continue the policies laid out by either McCain or Obama. On whether either one of them agreed with Cheney’s approach to the office of Vice-President, Palin dodged the gist of the question & focused on being a team player with the president. Biden took the opportunity to trash Cheney & Cheney’s use of the office.

When asked if they had an “Achille’s heel” in their personal makeup, both candidates used their respective personal stories to relay to the audience what motivated them to be involved in public service. It was at this juncture that Biden talked about his personal tragedies & for a moment he choked back some emotion – a vulnerable moment that helped to make him more human to the audience.

On the question of whether or not either candidate had ever changed their minds about a previously held belief, Biden acknowledged that his attitude on judicial nominees changed dramatically & stated his pride in helping to kill the Bork nomination for SCOTUS. Palin offered her regrets on some of the decisions she felt she was forced to make as governor (which prevented her from pursuing additional cut backs on taxes/state spending) but she quickly segued into her familiar schtick of being a maverick change agent.

The closing statements from the candidates presented another stark contrast between them. Palin stuck to her talking points on representing the values of “ordinary” Americans & that she & McCain were the genuine “change” agents who could make a difference in Washington. Biden stressed the importance of the nature of change (as represented by himself & Obama) as one of judgement to do the right thing in order to restore America’s standing in the world as well as restore the country’s self respect.

Was there a loser? No. I think both Biden & Palin avoided any gaffes & each candidate did a good job in defending the head of their respective tickets. Biden & Palin avoided any personal attacks against each other. They seemed to genuinely like each other & enjoy the give-&-take of their banter.

Was there a winner? Biden was certainly the better debater on a technical level in that he (unlike Palin) was more likely to answer a question rather than deflect it or ignore it. He also avoided the repetitive use of talking points that characterized some of Palin’s answers & sought at times to provide more context. However, some of Biden’s answers were either just flat out wrong or could charitably be called misstatements (especially regarding his defense of some of Obama’s past stands); you could figure out which answer was questionable by the intensity of his bluster. All in all, it was classic Biden.

Expectations for Palin, however, were a lot lower (thanks in part to the mainstream media) & in that regard she exceeded them. As a newcomer on the national stage, she held her own against a 30+ year veteran of the Washington Establishment. Although policy wonks might find Palin’s performance spotty, I think her charisma will rejuvinate the GOP base, allow unenrolleds to take another (favorable) look at her, & tempt a few working/middle class Democrats to vote for her – & McCain, of course.

Her disarming persona (“Can I call you Joe?”), her graciousness to Biden, her intelligence, her Reaganesque appeal, & her non-Washington politesse will – I suspect – encourage citizens to give the McCain/Palin ticket one more chance to win their votes. Strangely enough, Palin’s performance will put pressure on McCain himself to rise to the standard she’s set in creating & sustaining a positive tone for his next two debates with Obama. After all, this year is a “change” election in more ways than one.

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