Thursday, October 02, 2008

The VP Debate

These are off-the-cuff reactions, without having seen any commentary on the debate.

In my only post on the subject prior to the VP debate, I talked a little bit about the "expectations game" and the extent to which it's reasonable or unreasonable to use it as a frame for evaluating the debate. The basic theme I tried to lay out was that while beating expectations -- particularly when the bar was set as low as it was for Gov. Palin -- wasn't enough for a win per se, it's not entirely untrue that Palin doing better than expected was irrelevant if she didn't objectively beat Joe Biden. Insofar as some voters who would be agnostic about a seemingly typical, average, mediocre politician might still be turned off if they thought Palin was in a uniquely dim-witted class, she could still score points simply by being pretty good if that would move her overall impression into "average" territory.

So, did Palin "beat expectations"? Depends what you mean. If the expectation was that she would be a babbling nitwit, then yes, she did exceed that bar. Most of the time, anyway. But she didn't get much above that, and there were times were she lapsed back into Katie Couric territory -- most notably, her answer on the global warming question, which embarrassingly came right after she named energy as her core area of expertise. She got caught totally blind by the question about endorsing Dick Cheney's "ghost branch" argument regarding the VP, and actually endorsed it, which is incredible to me -- though I don't think she actually understood what it was she was being asked. The net effect was that, even if she performed marginally better than she did with Gibson and Couric, it was still not enough even to mark her as mediocre.

So let's be clear: under any objective evaluation, Joe Biden thrashed Sarah Palin tonight. It was a demonstration of what happens when you put politicians who are simply in separate leagues together in a room. And I got the distinct impression that Biden genuinely either does not like or does not respect Gov. Palin. It's hard to blame him -- I feel the same way -- and if I were a distinguished public servant like Biden I would have taken Palin's answers as a personal insult to the entire public profession. I think that explains the one time Biden really seemed to snap tonight, when Palin started talking about how she knew what it was like to raise a family in difficult circumstances, and that made her unique. Biden virtually never talks about his first wife and the horrible catastrophe that struck him, and it's obvious it's still painful to him. From a purely Machiavellian standpoint, maybe you could say Palin rattled him. But I think it made him more human, and more Palin -- who went right back on the attack -- look even more craven.

But Biden was, for the most part, on his game tonight. He was substantive, he was clear, he was aggressive without coming off as mean-spirited. And Governor Palin was the absolute reverse. Her talk about how Biden kept looking to the past when he was talking about the failures of Bush/McCain policies was absolutely inane. She would flat-out refuse to talk about any issue that might be difficult for her -- from when she smarmily said she wouldn't answer the way the "moderator" and Biden wanted her to in response to a perfectly reasonable request to discuss Biden's charges regarding McCain's stance on regulation (she talked about tax cuts instead), to her blanket refusal to admit she's ever changed her mind about anything. The latter quality was something she claimed as a virtue -- an exemplification of "straight talk" -- much as the fact that Sen. Kerry had learned from mistakes was taken as evidence of weak character in 2004.

Indeed, quite often Gov. Palin sounded like a 2004 flashback. She was at her strongest -- which in this case is "maintained reasonable coherency" -- when she was either a) reciting campaign cliches about being a maverick or hailing from small town America (note to Palin: I've met plenty of small town Americans in my life, and without exception none of them felt compelled to keep pointing it out to me. If being from a small town really impacts who you are and how you live your life, you should be able to demonstrate it by showing us, not telling us) or b) lobbing superficial rhetorical bombs about how Democrats want to "surrender" in Iraq, are "dangerous", and of course, the conservative mantra about tax raising. It's not impressive to me, and I don't think it stirs good memories in the minds of American voters anymore.

This is the election for the vice presidency. We don't grade on a curve here. Biden I give an A- -- I wish he would have mentioned even more his work on the Violence Against Women Act, which opens so many angles of attack it is not funny. And Palin? D+. "Exceeds expectations" isn't good enough. She had to prove Couric and Gibson were flukes, and she did not come close to doing that.


Anonymous said...

She's so annoying it's hard to look at her. All of the winking, "chipper", cutsey stuff turns me off big time.

PG said...

I grew up in a town of 30,000 (inflated by a college) and there were few enough Indians around that a lot of people knew me as "Dr. G's daughter." But yeah, neither I nor most of those people talk about small-town-ness nonstop. Indeed, most don't take Palin's nasty attitude toward "the big city." When my mom's friends and co-workers heard I was getting married in NYC, they thought it was cool and were excited for me. So far as I know, there isn't concern that I'm getting morally corrupted.

Incidentally, two things stuck out at me about Palin tonight. I'll preface by saying I was surprised by how well Palin did. I was even more surprised to see the immediate Fox commentary afterward was actually fair: they noted that she didn't answer the questions about bankruptcy and Iraq exit strategy but instead switched to topics with which she was familiar (energy and the wisdom of the surge); and that she was "just not true" in saying that the current troop level in Iraq was below pre-surge levels (pre-surge was 137,000; current is 140,000).

However, I thought her closing speech was horribly depressing and not good. Do we have Communist invaders lined up on our northern and southern borders and I just missed it? How is our freedom being threatened? It's not our freedom that's being threatened but our way of life -- as Israelis' is, as Indians' may have to be (although being so numerous and not having suffered a Holocaust, Indian people seem less freaked out by casualties in terrorist attacks). Osama bin Laden cannot take away our freedom, but the need to keep ourselves safe from him and his followers may lead to our restricting it.

Thing number one that stuck out: she bookended her part of the debate with fear. She started with Americans' fearfulness about the economy -- not anxiety, not worry or concern, but fear. She ended with the possibility that if we don't "fight" (fight what?), freedom will become a fairy tale we tell our children. Until now, I hadn't believed the DKos schtick that while Obama appeals to our hope, McCain appeals to our fear, but Palin sure sounded like she agreed with that.

Thing number two: she's jumped on McCain's moral-righteousness-will-fix-everything bandwagon that irritates the hell out of people like George Will. She kept talking about how they were going to fix the corruption and greed on Wall Street. Greed is a moral failing -- avarice one of the seven deadly sins. If religion can't root it out of us, I doubt that government can. I know this moralistic tone appeals to voters and plays to Palin's strength, the idea being that you can hire experts but you can't buy the right values. But the voters aren't asking about values; they're asking about what is going to be done for them.

Speaking of values, Palin's saying how much she appreciated Biden's respect for the troops, but that Obama was "a different story," was pretty ugly. Can right wingers finally stop denying that their side questions Obama's patriotism?

Anonymous said...

Hometown population < 1,000 people. I can't believe I don't relate to Palin's small-town American values.