Biden vs. Palin -- Who Won? 6 Short Takes on the VP Debate
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Early on in Thursday's debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin a question about bipartisanship: "Would you work to shrink this gap of polarization which has sprung up in Washington?" In response, Joe Biden painted McCain as a flip-flopper, and Sarah Palin attacked Obama. To which Ifill replied, "Neither of you really answered that."
Or did she? Many politicians have mastered the art of dodging questions. What struck me about this debate was that Sarah Palin has mastered the art of something else: making you forget the question.
A lot of Democrats wanted her to do badly tonight. And based on Palin's recent interview blunders, including her now widely circulated walk-and-talk Q&A with Katie Couric, a lot of reporters predicted she would. Now every one of them is eating their words.
I wish I had listened to the debate on the radio instead of watching it on TV because I would probably be writing a very different commentary right now. That's because neither candidate had any major gaffes. There were no memorably embarrassing statements. In fact, we didn't even learn very much tonight about Joe Biden and Sarah Palin because they both spent so much time attacking their opponent's running mate. When the candidates were on point, we either got information we already knew (the Bush administration has run this country into the ground; Obama and Biden want a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, while McCain and Palin don't), or we learned about Biden and Palin's similarities: Both fancy themselves on the side of middle-class Americans, both oppose redefining marriage; both have sons in or on their way to war; both were hard-pressed to say what they would give up in light of the $700 billion bailout.
This debate wasn't lost or won based on anything verbal. It was won on nonverbal communication. And the winner was Sarah Palin.
The first thing Palin did upon entering the stage was blow a kiss to the audience, then greet Biden, saying, "Nice to meetcha. Hey, can I call ya Joe?" She was colloquial. She was charming. She took control, and except for a brief moment when a teary-eyed Biden recalled his wife's death and the experience of being a single parent, she never lost it. When Biden sighed, Palin smiled. He jutted his jaw forward in frustration; she smirked. He furrowed his brow; she winked.
And when Palin did speak, even if you disagreed with her words, based on the way she talked, you could feel that she meant them.
To be fair, Biden did a commendable job. He deserves credit for criticizing McCain's health care plan, which would leave the average family $7,000 short each year from being able to purchase coverage on the open market. He deserves credit for pointing out, in response to a question on climate change, that America has just 3 percent of the world's oil reserves but consumes a quarter of the world's oil. He deserves credit for correcting the record numerous times with regard to Iraq and questioning why we're pouring millions of taxpayer dollars each month into a country that's sitting on a huge budget surplus.
Of course, if debates were won on smarts alone, John Kerry would be our sitting president.
Trust and credibility are two crucial, and often overlooked, components of a debate. That happens when you show your audience you understand them and leave them feeling good and confident in your ability to solve their problems. That's arguably easier for candidates to achieve through behavior and body language than word choice. One UCLA study estimates that up to 93 percent of communication's effectiveness is determined through nonverbal cues. Others place the number closer to 95 percent. If that holds true, it's hard to overstate the importance of Sarah Palin looking into the camera and at the audience, instead of looking away or at Ifill, as Biden did.
In a way, people buy politicians the same way they buy brands. Do you purchase Crest or Colgate or Tom's of Maine because you know exactly which ingredients (zinc citrate trihydrate, hydrated silica) do what (fight tartar, whiten enamel)? Or do you pluck the tube from the shelf because you trust it will do the job? Granted, toothpaste can't wink, but actors in their advertisements can.
So before you put too much stock in pundits' post-debate analyses, which usually include the dissecting and fact-checking of words, think for a minute about the times you've gained someone's trust. Was it because of something you said? Or because of how you said it?
I watched the debate at the posh Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, N.Y., in a room filled with progressives and strong Obama supporters. Many attending essentially agreed with the conventional wisdom and the pundits: While Biden won because of superior knowledge and communication skills, Palin did better than many expected. Thus Biden didn't come away with as clear a victory as he might have, had she stumbled. But Biden was the victor nevertheless. Veteran political writer and pundit Joe Conason explained: "Biden did away with the elitist myth, talking about his roots in Scranton. And he actually knew something. She knew nothing. Independent voters actually want people to have some knowledge."
But there was a separate, contrary undercurrent in the room and in follow-up interviews. It was a disquiet, which I shared with half a dozen people I spoke with. Call us the working class sympathizers. Maybe because of our roots, or work as artists, we are more tuned in to the reality where form can often take precedence over substance.
One actress, who has been doing some speaking for Obama in Pennsylvania offered that Palin scared her: "She was slick, she had her role down; she is going to appeal to people more than we think." An artist, with roots in working class Philly was clearly disturbed: "Pallin hung in there; it pissed me off. I think for some voters, it is not what she says, but how she says it, and she had the language thing down. People in this room may dismiss it, but to some people, she sounds real and authentic, and that will help her."
A Brooklyn-based Web designer observed: "She reminded me of Reagan, winking and nodding. I know people like my mother, who is a swing voter, in upstate New York, will like Palin much more after tonight. She was clear and strong in her convictions. Too many on our side want to think that everyone sees things like they do. They have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of working class people. Now all the highly educated Obama supporters are being parachuted into swing states with their progressive attitudes, and it can often be counter productive. It was in 2004."
I agree with these observations. And I would have thought that relative to what was expected -- Biden's experience and Palin's ongoing portrayal as a fumbling know-nothing -- that Palin could actually be considered "ahead on points" in this debate. As Mother Jones' David Corn notes, "Palin stuck to well-crafted talking points, recited them with passion and conviction, and played the part of the spunky, down-home, up-North, middle-class-mom-turned-governor well." So Palin was on the verge of being a winner in my book, until one crucial moment near the end of debate. That was when Joe Biden got vulnerable. He talked about the loss of his wife and children in an accident, and he almost broke down. It felt very real and brought tears to my eyes. And in what probably was Palin's only major mistake, she ignored Biden's tragedy. She started talking about McCain the maverick for the umpteenth time, suggesting that she had a tin ear when it comes to other people's pain, thus undermining her overall message. She was on a roll until then. But if she can't relate to Joe Biden's pain, how can we believe her when she says she relates to the rest of America's?
Both vice presidential candidates did what they needed to do tonight.
Biden abstained from bullying a clearly overmatched Palin and didn't launch into any professorial lectures (even if he went over some heads once or twice, like when he talked about the somewhat archaic "unitary executive" theory pushed by the Federalist Society and conservative legal scholars). He associated McCain with Bush -- and Cheney -- as often as possible, made it clear that he was just some guy from Scranton, and didn't say anything that'll become news.
Sarah Palin's task was to avoid getting caught in specifics, and she did that with aplomb. Early on, she made her strategy explicit, saying that her answers may not be "what the moderator wants," or what Joe Biden might want to hear, but that she'd "talk straight" to the American people.
She did that by avoiding just about every question for the rest of the debate. In answer to Biden's charge that McCain had voted repeatedly to deregulate the financial sector, she launched into a discussion of taxes; when the subject turned to the bankruptcy "reform" bill, she launched into a slogan-riddled discourse about "Main Street" versus "Wall Street" -- the trite words of the day. Several times she went back to a tested talking point about Barack Obama's support of (Bush's) energy bill, barreling head-on through whatever topic moderator Gwen Ifill was trying to probe at the time.
Throughout, she tried to play up her folksiness, at one point saying "doggone it," and twice winking mischievously at the camera. If you'd been drinking each time she said the word "maverick," you would have ended up with severe alcohol poisoning.
It might have been a good strategy if the narrative on Palin weren't that she's hopelessly out of her league. But it is, and I imagine her evasiveness will be the story today.
If that's the case, it's not going to help the McCain campaign advance its own "change" argument after 8 years of obfuscation and incompetence in the Bush White House.
So I hope the media spend endless energy analyzing Palin's ducking and weaving, because I'm not sure I can handle four more years of hearing "nukular" in the nationâ€™s highest offices.
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos:
Sarah Palin won! Actually, she survived, since she had no "deer in headlight" moments. Of course, it's easy to do that when you say, straight up, that you won't answer any questions you don't like. And in true to her word, she tossed aside any question that might prove problematic (like Biden's questions on McCain's support for deregulation) to discuss whatever talking points she had memorized.
And really, Palin was like one of those dolls where you pull the string, and some pre-recorded message comes out. Pull string, "They hate our freedoms!" Pull string, "Obama will raise taxes!" Pull string, "Drill, baby, drill!" It was tiresome and, frankly, a little boring.
Joe Biden obviously knows his shit. That was never in doubt, and nothing Biden did changes that perception. In fact, he even had a little of fun showmanship to spice up his answers, like his mocking of McCain's refusal to meet with Spain. And his takedown of McCain's "maverick" status was simply sublime.
So who won? Who cares? Nothing happened to change the dynamics of this race. Palin proved that she's still unable to answer the questions posed to her, but she also didn't fall flat on her face. And in the ridiculously depressed expectations for the governor of Alaska, she didn't crash and burn. But she didn't need to maintain the status quo. That's toxic territory for her. She needed to prove that she could get beyond prepackaged talking points to demonstrating some capacity for analytical thought. In that regard, she failed.
On the merits, Biden won easily. On the things that debates are scored on, it was a draw. And for us Democrats, that's the same as victory.
And one more note: Gwen Ifill was excellent. Like Lehrer, I forgot she was on stage, and that's the way moderators should be.
Chris Bowers of OpenLeft:
If all Palin had to do tonight in order to meet expectations was to answer questions, then she pretty much failed. More than half of the time she didn't answer the question put to her at all. For example, when asked about household debt, she talked about energy. When asked about Pakistan, she talked about Iran. And on and on.
Biden was extremely lucid by comparison. The difference between Biden and Palin reminded one of the difference between listening to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It is only when you go back and listen to Clinton's interviews, press conferences and speeches during his tenure that you remember that it is actually possible to understand what a president is saying. The comparison of Biden and Palin was exactly like that. I will be stunned if the pundits or the polls even consider this a draw.
Overall, this just wasn't as good a debate as Friday's. Palin's rambling lowered the quality of the debate, but that wasn't the only factor. They didn't talk to each other much (at least compared to Obama and McCain), and they didn't talk about themselves much. If I wanted to hear more talk about Obama and McCain, I'd watch their next debate. I wanted to hear more about Biden and Palin, and that fell short. Also, I actually didn't like Ifell's questions that much. Instead of asking questions like "what is your position on x," she seemed to often asked "what is wrong with your position on x?" So, really, I didn't like this debate much.
One final word of advice to McCain and Palin: You can't give yourself your own nickname. Palin and McCain keep calling themselves a team of mavericks. It sounds about as dorky as a 14-year old nerd who demands to be called "Superfly," even though everyone refuses to do so.
Update: Pundits think that because Palin didn't suck as bad as she did in the Couric interview, that she done good (to be all folksy). Talk about giving her a low bar. That's like a baseball team improving because they didn't get no-hit in the second part of the double-header.
Some pundits agree with me, but not most. I do agree with the general view that this debate doesn't matter much.
Christy Hardin Smith of FireDogLake:
The moment when Joe Biden talked about being a single parent unsure whether his sons would make it after his wife and daughter were tragically killed in a car accident?
Most real thing I've seen in politics in a long, long time.
When Biden was speaking about the folks he grew up with in Scranton and Wilmington -- their fear about how to pay for the heat in the winter, and groceries and medical bills? You could feel the empathy pouring out of the television.
He wants to help those folks. They are his neighbors, whether they live next door or across the continent.
Sarah Palin has clearly been on camera enough to hit her marks, and deliver her rote, frenzied lines for that closing speech or to launch into yet another hyperactive filibuster. I give her credit for having a great camera presence, but so much of it felt scripted, manic and manufactured -- down to the newly caramelized color of her highlights that they toned down with a color rinse from the usual brassier version for the stage lighting tonight.
Especially the moment where she was griping about corporations taking advantage of folks, while she's spent the last five weeks chumming around with corporate lobbyist cronies of John McCain's. (What ya do, not what ya say, you betcha! *wink*)
Frankly, I have had enough of a manufactured false front in the last eight years, haven't you? I don't want to have a beer with my leaders. I want them to do their jobs, and to care enough to do them well.
Joe Biden? He was real. He spoke from real experience, from his heart and his gut. He cared about the subjects, whether it was protecting women from violence, or Afghanistan, or home heating bills for the poor. And I loved him for it tonight.