“I think the dangerous thing about these debates is that you can really recite your way to victory, you can memorize an awful lot of material and get away with it as intelligence, when in fact it’s just really good preparation.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said that on the air tonight after the vice-presidential debate between Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. Matthews was speaking in general, even historical terms, but his observation cut to the specifics of Palin’s debate performance tonight, shining a light on the difference between knowledge and memorization.
Palin didn’t fall apart, she didn’t rhetorically burst into flame or run screaming from the stage at Washington University in St. Louis. What Sarah Palin did tonight was fail to articulate the differences between a prospective McCain campaign and the administration that Team McCain hopes to replace. The talking points Palin doggedly clung to all night might as well have been written by the Bush administration. And that’s a fundamental problem.
We might have seen this coming. On the weight of recent evidence, the bar of expectations for Palin was so low it would have been impossible for her not to “do well.” We said as much yesterday, that her performance would have plusses and minuses that, in the end, wouldn’t alter the electoral math that’s slowly developing.
And there was no game changer tonight. Biden exhibited much of the avuncular gravitas, the command of facts, the populist passion, the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that has characterized his thirty-five years in the Senate.
And Palin didn’t thoroughly embarrass herself. She was as circular, as evasive, as one-dimensional as she was in the Katie Couric interview; she clearly dug into a thesaurus this time out. But for much of the evening there was a sense that the Alaska governor was regurgitating the McCain briefing book, or a Cliff’s Notes version of the same.
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In the debate’s ninety-minute duration, and with a format that was almost frantically paced — moderator Gwen Ifill was not at her best tonight — Biden and Palin offered varying responses to such issues as climate change, the domestic economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, and their own personal and political shortcomings.
Palin seemed to stay on message much of the time: looking directly at the camera, by turns small-town friendly and statehouse tough, at one point even daring to wink into the camera. It was an attempt to be disarming, the outsider with no regard for either the rules of the debate or the gravity of the national condition.
But the blithe spirit of Sarah Palin underwhelmed more than once.
Palin repeatedly hunkered down behind the wall of energy independence, doing everything she could to shift the topic from other pressing national topics back to that topic, and how her position as governor of an energy-rich state made her qualified to be vice president of the whole country. Even when the debate questions naturally shifted to the economy, and the impact of the mortgage crisis on everyday Americans, Palin steered back to her role as Alaska’s energy steward. Enough about you, she seemed to be saying, let’s talk about me.
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Then, consider her statements about the impact of the Wall Street meltdown on ordinary Americans: “One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let's commit ourselves just every day American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say never again. Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars. …”
Such incoherence was countered with flashes of practicality. “Let's do what our parents told us before we probably even got that first credit card. Don't live outside of our means. We need to make sure that as individuals we're taking personal responsibility through all of this. It's not the American peoples fault that the economy is hurting like it is, but we have an opportunity to learn a heck of a lot of good lessons through this and say never again will we be taken advantage of.”
Ifill came up with a question that sought Palin’s perspective on the scope of the vice presidency in the wake of Dick Cheney’s imperial interpretation of the office. The answer was maybe the evening’s biggest outright gaffe, and one that underscored like nothing else her unfitness to assume the vice presidency.
IFILL: Governor … 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?
PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation.
Frustrated with Palin’s unwillingness or inability to clearly articulate a policy on the Iraq war, Biden punched his points on the war home with a broadside that repeated the You-were-wrong mantra that Obama unleashed against McCain in the first debate.
“I haven't heard how his policy is going to be different on Iran than George Bush's," he said. "I haven't heard how his policy is going to be different with Israel than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Afghanistan is going to be different than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Pakistan is going to be different than George Bush's.
“It may be. But so far, it is the same as George Bush's. And you know where that policy has taken us.”
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The early snapshots from the punditburo were not kind to Palin:
Robert Shrum in The Huffington Post: “She couldn't deal with many of the questions directly or most of the facts, so she bloviated according to plan. She winked at us; the voters won't wink back at her. Pat Buchanan thinks she won. I think people still have a bullshit factor-- and that means she survived even as she met the low expectations she's created.”
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, HuffPost: “Given the challenges our nation now faces, we need a vice president who can be persuasive with foreign leaders, tough with congress, and relentless in his drive to serve the American people. Tonight, Joe Biden showed why he is the right person for that job.”
Everyday people checked in too. Starfire426 in HuffPost: “There was a plethora of women in the Repub party that Mc could have chosen from who at least had experience, dignity and class...but he goes out and selects someone I wouldn't hire to be a Wal-Mart greeter for the potential highest position in the land!!! How dumb can you get???”
NatteringNabobs, HuffPost: “That ticket is sunk...he sealed his fate picking Palin...a pick that solidified the base. A base that was going to vote for him anyway.
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Nagourney, writing in The Times, put The Palin Show in perspective. “It was not a tipping point for the embattled Republican presidential ticket, the bad night that many Republicans had feared. But neither did it constitute the turning point the McCain campaign was looking for … Even if he no longer has to be on the defensive about Ms. Palin, Mr. McCain still faces a tough environment with barely a month until the election, as he acknowledged hours before the debate by effectively pulling his campaign out of Michigan, a Democratic state where Mr. McCain’s advisers had once been optimistic of victory.
Todd Harris, a Republican consultant , told The Times that Palin’s debate “is going to help stop the bleeding. But this alone won’t change the trend line, particularly in some of the battleground states.”
We mildly disagree. Palin’s performance was, at the end of the night, not one inch above adequate, and adequate is not enough for Team McCain. Palin stops the bleeding — briefly — at one point on the body of a presidential campaign whose exsanguination is day by day only getting worse.