Friday, October 3, 2008

Biden Helps Obama, and Palin Helps Palin

Going into the debate last night, it was pretty clear what the tasks for each vice presidential candidate would be.

Sarah Palin had to survive the ninety minutes and bounce back from the Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews, which she did.

Joe Biden had to win the debate, which he did.

The two major post-debate polls conducted on undecided voters by CNN and CBS showed that Joe Biden won the debate by a significant margin, but Sarah Palin exceeded expectations.

Normally, this would mean a boost for the Obama-Biden ticket, but it's not. Winning the debate isn't enough - primarily because these things aren't really debates. They're auditions, and the actual debate (which by definition would be a substantive discussion on the issues) was only one component of the audition last night.

Strategically, Joe Biden had to define John McCain as an out-of-touch non-maverick closely tied to the Bush administration. He accomplished this very effectively.

Palin needed to show that she was not as clueless and incoherent as she appeared in her Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews.

She accomplished this partially.

She wasn't completely coherent - she would often ramble and repeat herself, and she did dodge questions, including a very relevant one on McCain's record on deregulation. When Biden pointed out that she didn't answer the question, she covered up semi-effectively by saying, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."

She also wasn't completely clueless - she was able to hold her own, not stumble, take a few effective jabs at both Biden and Obama, and come up with some sort of answer, as tangential as it may be, to every question.

On style, Biden and Palin were both great, but Palin seemed to have the edge.

She was charming, delivered her attacks with a smile, and constantly looked and spoke into the camera. She was concise and clear, and warm and folksy. Her hockey-mom persona came through well. At one point, she sent a shout-out to a group of third graders who she said would get extra credit for watching the debate.

Her Washington-outsider persona also came through well, forming the basis of her single most effective one-liner against McCain: "Oh, yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You're one who says, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice-versa."

Palin Benefits From Reverse Sexism.

Biden was coached to restrain himself and not attack her or appear like he's "beating up" on a woman. Again, he did this perfectly. He was gracious and gentleman-like, not even correcting her when she mistakenly called David McKiernan (the commanding general in Afghanistan), "McClellan". He allowed Palin to get away with a lot, rarely if ever criticising her, instead choosing to focus on McCain.

If Palin was a man, Joe Biden would most certainly have been more aggressive about the dodged questions and slipups, like Lloyd Bentsen was to Dan Quayle in 1988.

But Biden was careful and did the smart thing, recognizing that in some situations, Americans are still not ready to see a woman treated in exactly the same way as a man.

He was easy on her, playing the honor student to her cheerleader: anything semi-intelligent out of her was shockingly impressive, while anything short of brilliant out of him was less than expected.

The Aftermath.

In the end, things are most likely to stay the same. The Republican base will love Palin's performance, the Democratic base will love Biden's, and the undecided voters will again, as they have before, vote against the status quo if they feel that things are going badly.

Thankfully, though, the Palin sideshow is over and she has now been initiated. Last night's audition went without any major disasters or home runs, and the race is back on track. From here on, Palin may be wise to restrict her media exposure to short but frequent interviews that are not recorded and susceptible to operator-dependent editing, but carried live - which seems to be the format most suited to her.

But for now, it's back to McCain and Obama.

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