Well, she absolutely had what it takes to win… if this had been an eighth-grade student council debate. Going up against a grown-up, though, Sarah Palin was mismatched.

An event like this is all about the image you convey to those inexplicably undecided voters out there—the crowd that hasn’t been following the race closely, beyond a few broad brushstrokes they’ve picked up from TV, but that nevertheless can swing an election. And with that goal in mind, just like last week, the two candidates tonight had mirror-image goals going into the evening.

Last week, Obama had to best the preconception that he’s too “professorial,” show more passion and empathy, and situate himself within the political “mainstream” (not too risky or scary, especially to older, white voters). McCain, meanwhile, had to overcome his rep for being touchy and impulsive, and demonstrate that he was emotionally grounded… yet not entirely conventional, to avoid being just a creature of the Bush administration. Obama pulled it off; McCain, not so much; and the week’s polls bore out that result, as Obama widened his lead.

Tonight? Palin mainly had to avoid falling on her face, at least as embarrassingly as she did in her recent CBS interviews (it takes a really disgraceful performance to make Katie Couric look like a smart, serious journalist). She had to be aggressive rather than defensive, reasonably articulate, and at least superficially informed on the issues. Biden, conversely, had to tone things down from his usual style—avoiding anything that could be seen as “condescending” to the less qualified candidate, and also avoiding his own tendency to pontificate. Or as James Fallows put it, “Joe Biden [would] be judged on whether he gets anything wrong; Palin, on whether she gets anything right.”

And by those basic standards, both candidates tonight cleared the bar.

But that just gets each one a passing grade—hardly the real goal (especially for the McCain campaign at this point). When we look at their performances beyond that threshold, and score them on the details, the differences were glaring. Palin surely did well enough to satisfy the “true believers”… but failed miserably to connect with a broader audience.

First, and worst, of all: Sarah? You see those little dots at the end of sentences? Those are called “periods.” Maybe your debate coaches didn’t mention this, but they mean that you can stop talking for a moment or two. Catch your breath, and let your audience process what you just said. It helps make your points more effective and memorable if they’re not drowned in an unceasing flow of words. Really.

Seriously, Palin seemed to be afflicted with incurable logorrhea tonight. She just bulldozed straight through almost every answer in one long run-on string of words, clause piled on fragment piled on sound bite. She seemed convinced that if she just kept talking, eventually she’d spit out the “right” response along the way. Biden’s the one who has the rep for verbosity, but he was admirably, indeed refreshingly, succinct by comparison.

Then there was the affected hominess. Ronald Reagan could pull off an aw-shucks attitude with undeniable sincerity (despite how much I despised what he stood for); Bill Clinton was likewise masterful at it. Palin, though? Not so much. She deliberately played up her accent (conspicuously dropping the “g” on -ing words, for instance); she actually winked at the camera at least twice. And said “nukular.” And gave a shout-out to the hometown school. But none of it came across as charming or “relatable”… just smarmy.

Equally grating was her repeated use of the word “maverick”—so often repeated that soon every recurrence drew a groan from the crowd with whom I watched the debate. It apparently got to Biden eventually as well:  I admit I actually balked when he took it up, and thought he would do better to let her bury herself with it… until he turned it around into a pointedly detailed list of all the ways McCain has not been a maverick when it would have made a real difference.

Last but (we can only wish) not least, there were the genuine issues under discussion. Here, Palin actually came across as condescending to the audience—spoon-feeding us scripted factoids and oversimplified talking points about taxes, energy, Iraq and more, many of which had been used and rebutted last week (not just on stage, but in the New York Times and at FactCheck.org)—or even tonight, sometimes corrected by Biden even before she’d had the chance to utter them. (Hint: you can’t say your opponent refuses to explain something right after he’s just explained it.) She went out of her way to do this, openly sidestepping the questions asked more than once, in a concerted effort to keep shoveling the lies, misrepresentations, and outright bullshit, apparently expecting listeners to swallow it all uncritically. Even if it means “getting Washington out of the way” and yet somehow having “massive oversight” in the same answer.

Biden, by contrast, took a page from Obama’s book and treated the audience with respect. He discussed the topics asked about in a fairly straightforward way (given the time constraints), bearing in mind the implicit assumption that listeners are smart enough to tell shit from shinola. Yes, he certainly leveled a fair share of criticism at McCain, but none of it was deceptive or gratuitous. Probably his best moment of the evening was when he seized the opportunity to explain just what a misbegotten idea McCain’s plan for health care “reform” really is, topping it off with the (clearly prepared, but well-deserved) line calling it “the ultimate bridge to nowhere.”

So. Was this the most humiliating debate performance Palin could have turned in? No, especially given her other media appearances of recent weeks. But was it enough to resuscitate the floundering McCain campaign? Not by a long shot.

Like last week, empirical verification:

CNN’s poll… gives the debate decisively to Biden, 51 to 36 percent. Palin did better than expected but Biden crushed her in the polling. And the question of whether the debate changed people’s views of her ability to be president: basically no change.

Second addendum:
Good liveblogged commentary from tonight’s debate can be found here

(Alex Massie) “Palin is reading off cue-cards that, one assumes, have complete answers written out. Not, of course, the answers to the questions she is being asked but, indubitably, answers nonetheless.”

and here

(Megan McArdle) “After this election, I am going to have to hit myself in the head with a small hammer to get the monotonous thrum of the word “maverick” out of my head.”

and here

(Ezra Klein) “She just accused Barack Obama of “mandating” health coverage. And my head just exploded. Shame, that, because I liked having my head.”

and here

(Steve Benen) “Government-run healthcare? She’s still lying. I think I’m noticing a pattern here.”

and here

(Andrew Sullivan) “She started by dazzling people with sheer velocity and energy and gimmicks. But as the debate goes on, her cutesy soundbites actually begin to unnerve. And his authority comes through.”

and just for fun, also from the gang at 23/6.com, desperately trying to keep satire a step ahead of reality.

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5 Responses to “Reactions to the Biden/Palin debate”
  1. Benny Nious says:

    Did anyone notice that she (like McCain was in his debate with Obama) was wired. she had a earpiece in her ear. It makes you wonder if she was being told what to say as questions were presented to her , then when it got to be to much for her she said ” I want to talk about energy”. Trying to take over the debate…… pitiful woman!

  2. […] Reactions to the Biden/Palin debate […]

  3. phil from new york says:

    Well done, Chris. Unfortunately, even though the snap polls show Biden winning the debate, those same polls show that something like 46 percent of the respondents think Palin is qualified to be president. Nobody with a brain could have watched that debate and come to that conclusion — hence, part of the problem with America today.

    As you know, Biden isn’t one of my favorite politicians, but I think he did an outstanding job even if he did slip into policy-wonk mode from time to time. He actually answered questions and worked his jabs in very well. And as numerous people have pointed out, he did a great job of attacking McCain’s positions, which is what the VP candidate is supposed to do.

    Will any of this matter? Probably not so much for the election (but maybe for Palin’s long-term prospects in the Republican Party). It doubtless put an end to the “Dump Palin” movement launched by some right-wing pundits. And as one blogger said, the spotlight for the next month may now properly focus on McCain and Obama and the “Palin is an idiot stuff” will go by the wayside.

    Also, the debate likely will be overshadowed by the House vote on the bailout. If the House votes down the bailout proposal, we’ll be facing a Black Monday (followed by Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday, etc.) and the reaction to the Palin performance will be the least of our worries.

    It is ironic that the Cheney-Bush administration has so mismanaged the economy that they may have created the perfect storm to get Barack Obama elected. And no matter how many times Sarah and the Saint argue that the past doesn’t matter, and go around claiming to be mavericks for change, the voters may be more likely to do what voters do in difficult economic times — throw the party in power out of the White House. (The pessimist in me has to note that we’re a long way from Election Day, and a lot can happen between now and then, but that’s the trend now. Indeed, if the election were held today, Obama would win.)

    And, oh, by the way, while we’re all rightly talking about the debate, the most important political news yesterday was that the McCain campaign closed up shop in Michigan.

  4. michael says:

    Well, we finally agree on something in this campaign season. I only hope the “undecided” audience noticed the gazillion times Palin directly contradicted herself. How is it that Obama’s tax policy is “redistribution,” but her own in Alaska was not? Biden did a terrific job at keeping his answers crisp and agressive—unlike Obama. His zingers worked well. I only wish he’d made a point of answering Palin’s bullshit about getting government out of the way by saying that people who don’t believe in government shouldn’t be allowed to run it. We’ve had enough of *that* already.

  5. beingajoe says:

    I personally hope that the debate does make a difference. It was very clear to me how much more depth Biden had over Palin. She could not talk off script to save her life. Unfortunately, she is going to be a talking head repeating the same thing over and over until election day.

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