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The Prelude to Debate

Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin generated an unparalleled anticipation for their Vice Presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. Although the number two position in United States government has been interpreted as a powerless, nominally important supporting role, it was propelled to grand heights by the national media for several reasons. First, Sen. Biden and Governor Palin represented only the second time in American history when a man has faced a woman in the VP debate; George H.W. Bush (R) faced Geraldine Ferraro in the first mixed contest in 1984. Second, in just five weeks in the national spotlight, Gov. Palin has sustained the interest of the press corps with both her daring personality and her unseemly moments of vapidity. Sen. Biden has been a fixture on the national circuit because of his long tenure in the House, and his own well-documented presidential campaigns of 1988 and 2008. For most of the public, Palin remained a mystery mom, an Alaskan native and, as she tells it, a Washington outsider. Add that to the secretive tactics employed to keep Ms. Palin’s appearances both limited and meticulously controlled, and there was all the room for a memorable evening of argument. 

Despite the McCain outfit’s best efforts to coach Sarah Palin through her incipient media gauntlet, she had run afoul of both conservatives in her party and the press corps once so familiar with the Straight Talk express. For weeks, Palin and McCain railed against everything from the media’s “sexist” treatment of the new Governor (insisting that she had been vetted and should not be questioned), to the bias of “Eastern elites” who apparently had no business scrutinizing her lack of true qualifications. She had been simultaneously labeled a disastrous pick to the best political move of John McCain’s thirty year career. Palin was, nevertheless, a dogged campaign ally, stoking the interest of Americans across the country and giving new life to the underdog ticket. In fact, in the two weeks after her arrival, Ms. Palin helped her party’s nominee in the polls, placing him in the lead for a brief time

Senator Biden was the safe pick, in contrast. Forget his penchant for public embarrassment. The major networks and newspapers all but ignored the 35-year veteran of the House. His legislative record, sharp rhetorical skills, and middle-class background were rarely the topic of headlines due to Ms. Palin’s utter inadequacy in handling her new media love affair. The Alaska Governor held two lengthy interviews with ABC’s Charles Gibson and CBS’s Katie Couric, both of which raised concerns about her readiness to hold high office. The Gibson and Couric interviews, if anything, revealed her naivete on issues of foreign policy, her unwillingness to give straight answers and her still scant preparation for the inquiries themselves. 

Even as the media descended on Sarah Palin, dissecting her various flaws and poorly placed responses, she enjoyed a favorable rating among Americans. Although many polls indicated a lack of confidence in her leadership abilities (especially during the bailout debacle), she found ways to make her cute comments and catch phrases a signature part of her style. She dubbed herself the Outsider, and pleaded with the nation to admire her plucky spirit. 

All of that ended on Thursday night, however. 

The Catch Phrase Express

The debate moderator Gwen Ifill was hogtied because of speculation about her bias for Barack Obama. (She writes a book that mentions him among the many black politicians who make up a new class of prominent Civil Rights leaders.) The PBS journalist was intent to give the candidates equal time to speak, and seemed hesitant to hold either accountable for answering questions, should she be accused of any overt prejudices. 

At the outset, Governor Palin took full advantage of Ms. Ifill’s subdued questioning. She let loose with an anecdote about a Saturday soccer game when asked about her campaign’s stance on the bailout bill. She also used the words “maverick” and “reform” to describe John McCain’s record on the economy without providing either a policy note, or evidence of said reform. Senator Biden’s next important point then laid out John McCain’s history of deregulating the private sector, hammering home that his campaign has said one thing, but done the opposite. He further inveighed against John McCain’s tendency to side with President George Bush’s hazardous economic policies by using the stock phrase “the fundamentals of the American economy are strong.” 

In response, Sarah Palin again used the words “maverick” and “reform,” claiming Senator Barack Obama had sided with his party more closely than John McCain had, and accusing Obama-Biden of typifying “politics as usual.”  At that juncture, Palin made it clear that she would repeat her tried and true debate strategy: relying on recognizable campaign jargon instead of fact.

Mr. Biden’s main charge, according to analysts and surrogates alike, was to avoid long-winded, patronizing speeches. He also had to back off of his personal attacks, so as not to seem overbearing to female viewers. His measured, thorough responses gave him solid ground to target issues directly pressing the American public. Biden called for oversight in any financial deals sponsored by government. He also emphasized a point Barack Obama only meekly made in his Presidential debate in Oxford a week before, that 95% of the population would receive a tax cut under his economic plan. When Palin tried to assert that Senator Obama had voted to tax the middle class while in Senate (those who made $42,000), Biden quickly rebuffed the charge:

Biden: The charge is absolutely not true. Barack Obama did not vote to raise taxes. The vote she’s referring to, John McCain voted the exact same way. It was a budget procedural vote. John McCain voted the same way. It did not raise taxes. Number two, using the standard that the governor uses, John McCain voted 477 times to raise taxes. It’s a bogus standard it but if you notice, Gwen, the governor did not answer the question about deregulation, did not answer the question of defending John McCain about not going along with the deregulation, letting Wall Street run wild. He did support deregulation almost across the board. That’s why we got into so much trouble.

His so-called “politics as usual” experience in the House enabled him to clear up broad misconceptions that Governor Palin advanced. 

Biden Reclaims Middle-Class

Governor Palin, almost as predictably as she began, repeated the refrain of her campaign trail anecdotes, using the phrases “Joe Six-Pack” and “hockey mom” to explain the credit troubles many Americans face. Although she attempted to portray Obama-Biden as liberal spenders, she never issued a figure to support that notion. When she finally mentioned a McCain health care tax credit of $5,000 under his health plan, Biden again seized the moment, explaining that McCain’s $5,000 credit would replace the average $12,000 credit provided for by employers in the current system. He adeptly used a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” analogy, and then went on to assure middle-class Americans that their tax dollars would not be wasted in an Obama-Biden administration. 

Governor Palin kept her composure and, again, reverted to the folklore of her brief stint as Alaskan governor. She claimed to fight big oil companies who were “not her biggest fans” and provide a voice for the citizens of her state. Her position as a fighter against oil companies deviates from her insistence on drilling oil reserves, and her running mate’s refusal to tax those same conglomerates for their enormous windfall profits. Senator Biden made sure to deride John McCain’s energy policy, contending that he would give those companies a four billion dollar tax break 

The conversation shifted Biden’s way decisively when he explained that Obama-Biden policies were not a “redistribution” of wealth (as Ms. Palin had remarked), but a concerted attempt at fairness. Many debate predictors had pegged Palin as the middle-class aficionado, but Biden went full force with his defense of that group. There was little room for Palin to deploy her folksy straight talk, and she was reduced to a winking, nodding, smiling act. When Biden tried to press her about McCain’s passivity in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, she was flustered. Rather than respond to his point, Palin changed the topic to energy once more. It was a brief moment, but it underscored her uncertainty in how to respond to Biden’s more versed approach. 

In a defining moment, Governor Palin backed off the spotlight like never before when asked what promises she might have to revise as a result of the complicated bailout bill:

Ifill: So, Governor, as vice president, there’s nothing that you have promised as a candidate that you would — that you wouldn’t take off the table because of this financial crisis we’re in?

Palin: There is not. And how long have I been at this, like five weeks? So there hasn’t been a whole lot that I’ve promised, except to do what is right for the American people, put government back on the side of the American people, stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street.

Her quip about a five-week run does little to reassure Americans already skeptical of a failing government. Moreover, her need to “do what is right” has not been proven, despite her use of the phrase. 

Another decline in the Palin performance tango occurred when Ms. Ifill asked the two candidates about manmade climate change, now backed by strong scientific evidence. Palin had once said that manmade climate change was an unfounded myth, according experts she had consulted. This time around, she admitted that climate change was real, and should be addressed (without explaining how she or John McCain would do that.)  Biden once again pounced, laying out the Obama-Biden initiative to create jobs in the energy industry with alternative sources like biofuels. He also decried Palin’s want to “drill, drill, drill” saying that energy independence would hinge on more than just tapping oil reserves for the short term.


“Fundamental Differences”


But the tide completely turned on the Iraq war issue, where Palin had no clear solution, and seemed handicapped in the discussion of Middle East affairs. She accused Barack Obama of voting against funding for troops (Biden reminded her that John McCain voted the same way on the bill) and further described Senator Obama’s plan as a “white flag of surrender.”

Biden dominated the topic, explaining the nuances of the Iraq-Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Where McCain-Palin failed to lay out a plan for withdrawal from the 5-year-old Iraq war, Biden said he and Barack Obama would “end this war.” He expounded again by saying that the primary terrorist threat was in Afghanistan. John McCain has never had a clear head about the conflict in Iraq, relying mostly on the knowledge of select right-leaning U.S. generals. Palin echoed that untenable philosophy in the debate.  While she tried to take a bold stand in her war tirade, Senator Biden asked for specifics about a timetable for withdrawal, and, in a brilliant turn, explained the various way John McCain had been misguided in his war theories. 

In the same way he had emphatically showed McCain’s record of only backing deregulation in the financial industry, Biden listed the ever-schizophrenic, wrongly conceived John McCain positions on the Iraq war. He went on to show that he and Barack Obama have consistently advocated for bringing the troop power to Afghanistan, and engaging in diplomacy with other hostile world regimes. Sen. Biden used his experience to make Gov. Palin look both amateurish and small-minded on issues of world affairs. 

Biden went on to inform how Obama-Biden diplomacy would work not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the Sudan, where genocide has reigned. His Bush administration critiques were piquant, and put Palin on the defensive for the remainder of the night. She was visibly perturbed by having to answer for her party’s rule for the past eight years, and said Biden was “pointing the finger backward” while Americans looked forward. Indeed, Biden did look backward, but he countered by saying “facts matter” and “the past is prologue” to indicate that change could not come without examining past fault. 

The Close

Senator Biden finished with a stong flourish of points designed to provide more contrast to what he called the Bush Administration’s “abject failure.” When asked about the office of the Vice President, both candidates demured at first in a sarcastic exchange about the position being unimportant. But instead of falling back on old political jokes, Biden figured himself prominently in the next administration as an adviser, and capably put himself outside of the domineering involvement associated with Vice President Cheney. Palin was especially brief on these points, preferring to remain in line with John McCain in spirit and fade to the background. 

Their closing remarks touched on the Iraq war in a personal way because each of them has a child who has a tour scheduled there. Here, Sen. Biden struck a chord with many parents by saying that he knew what it was like to be a single parent, and to fear for a child entering the most dangerous circumstance possible. He fought back tears in the middle of his poignant statement. Governor Palin had once held the sympathy card by making her family a big part of her image as she entered the race, but Biden was sure to make voters aware of his deep family bonds as well. He then detailed reasons why this could be “the most important election” we ever vote in, and pleaded for change in trying times. Palin also commented on the need for change, and talked about the resolve and resilience of America. This kind of rhetoric is all fine and good, but the Governor only used words of comfort when the nation needs much more than a soothing story and wink of the eye.

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