Friday, October 3, 2008

The Vice Presidential Debate

Well, we all waited with baited breath to see what would happen. Would Palin totally screw up? Would Biden come across as a pompous know-it-all? As with the presidential debate, my commentary is not about who won a technical debate on purely factual logical grounds. Political debates are about keeping the voters you have, swaying a few on the other side, and attracting as many of those key undecided voters as you can.

The debate was fairly uneventful. For the most part there were no major gaffes, but there were several minor ones. Throughout the debate, it was clear Palin was reciting from memorized scripts. Her delivery was a monotonous monotone, interspersed with seemingly random facial affectations (what was with all that winking?). The term "robodebator" kept springing to mind. There were exceptions to this, and they were always when she was discussing topics she had discussed before: same sex marriage, Wasilla, and oil exploration. There her delivery was much more natural, and believable. But on the followup questions from the moderator, it was clear she couldn't deal with any new information, and kept saying "Can I just go back to [previous topic]", which translated to my head as "I need to go back to my prepared script", because every time she said it she just repeated what she had said earlier.

However, the same sex marriage issue brought up the most serious comment Palin made: that she essentially agreed with the position of Biden and Obama, which is to have no legal differences between the way traditionally defined and same-sex couples are treated. This surely raised some eyebrows in the social conservative circles, and no doubt cost her votes. There are many one-issue voters with that as their issue.

Biden was no doubt told to be boring, and for the first 30 minutes or so he was exactly that. He used more specifics and facts and figures than she did, but there is little evidence that is helpful. The average voter can't follow all the figures, and when the candidates dispute each other it just becomes a he-said she-said. But it seemed he did come across as more knowledgeable, which was really his only goal.

Biden's first zinger came when he reminded the audience that McCain refused to commit to meeting with Spain. This is politically very interesting, since McCain actually has no problem meeting with Spain. But he flubbed the issue in a radio interview where he got confused about where Spain was, and whether it was a Latin American nation, which left his campaign with a choice of either admitting that he got confused, or accepting as his official position that he won't meet with Spain, an ally. Fearing fueling rumors of senility, they bit the bullet, and stood by the comment, which Obama and Biden have exploited masterfully as a supposed example of McCain's unwillingness to talk to foreign leaders.

Speaking of sitting with foreign leaders, Palin made the same exact "sitting across the table from Ahmadinejad" that was so ineffective for McCain. I could think of no reason why the McCain camp would choose to reuse a failed argument except one: it gave Palin something to spend time saying that wouldn't sound foolish.

Palin mentioned in her defense of Iraq that there have been many mistakes made during the war. I found this to be a curious, and potentially damaging admission. Expect Obama and Biden to pounce on this in future weeks.

I am curious to see if there is any more discussion of Palin's pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nukeelar", or of Iran and Iraq as "eye-ran" and "eye-raq". To educated ears, this sounds very hillbilly, but to the trailorpark undecideds, it just might ring the "she's like us" bells.

The first deer-in-the-headlights moment actually came at Biden's expense, as Palin caught him off guard with a swift rebuttal to Biden's claims about generals opinions of the situation in Afghanistan, and the effectiveness of an Iraq-style surge. Palin's answers had been so long prior to that, that Biden no doubt was still preparing his retort in his head when Palin abruptly stopped. Whether it was intentional strategy, or simply running out of anything else to say, it was a great move on Palin's part, and left Biden fumbling around to struggle for a retort.

Towards the end of the debate Palin appeared to tire a bit, as anyone having to rote memorize the amount of material she had to would, and the mistakes started coming. She said McCain knows how to win wars. This raised several eyebrows in our viewing group, since McCain fought in Viet Nam, was captured, and we lost that war. So what experience exactly is Palin referring to here?

Then she mentioned almost offhandedly that she thinks the powers of the VP should be expanded. This was a major political error. Dick Cheney's ratings are in the toilet, and the power given to the VP is hardly a hot topic around water coolers. There was no way Palin was going to come out of that exchange looking good. After Biden and the moderator pounced on this dubious position, Palin got flustered, and had her Katy Couric moment, doing her best impersonation of Kenny Rogers and The First Edition singing "Just Dropped in to see What Condition my Condition was in", as she cut loose with this beauty:

"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."

That was her only real goofball moment, aside from a minor Freudian slip of saying John McCain had to "leave, er, lead...". In the end both candidates did what they went there to do: Biden was informed, but polite, Palin, stilted, but not entirely foolish. Personally I found Palin's folksyisms to be entirely contrived and unpersuasive, but I doubt the majority of viewers saw it that way.

Watching the post debate show on Fox produced a new low in biased, fake journalism. After listening to the talking heads grasp around for anything positive to say about Palins's speech, and finally agreeing that she was pretty, young, and seemed happy to be there (Why does that matter? Never mind, we have to say something!), they went to Frank Luntz and a group of supposedly undecided voters, who miraculously thought Palin won the debate by a tally of about 95%. Luntz then stuck his microphone under their mouths to get their reasons, and lo and behold, wouldn't you know it, they all recited all the Republican talking points: "she connected with middle America", "she had a positive view for America", "she's ready to lead", bla bla bla, with nary a repetitive phrase, nor a stutter, nor a single moment of one person talking over another, all inevitable when dealing with an actual, random group. Come on Fox, we know you rig the game, but try not to be so obvious about it.

Of course when the actual polls came out, they showed Biden winning handily by about a 2:1 or 3:1 margin. The most telling statistic, I found, was this one:

Who better understands the problems of people like me:

Biden: 50
Palin: 44

That's her bread and butter issue, relating to average people. If Biden beat her on that, game over.

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