The debate’s winner: Biden and Palin.
The debate’s loser: John McCain.
Sarah Palin was the winner only in the sense that she didn’t break down into a completely incoherent, drooling mess or run off the stage screaming. (As Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times: “In truth, after her horrendous performance with Katie Couric, anything short of her head spinning around and spewing vomit would have been considered an improvement.”) Those were the expectations she had to beat, and she beat them.
Biden was going to judged on whether he got anything wrong. Palin was going to be judged on whether she got anything right.
Biden was expected to be smart and knowledgeable and effectively make the case for Obama. He was and he did. But he, too, exceeded expectations. It was probably the best performance of his life. He struck exactly the right tone. As Clive Crook wrote at the Atlantic blog:
Could Biden have been more effective? Maybe. I'm sure many Democrats will criticize him for failing to go for the kill. But I think he judged it just right. He was friendly and courteous, laughed at himself once or twice, and displayed a superior mastery of the issues without ever seeming overbearing. He was much more critical of McCain than of her. Altogether he seemed as likeable as Palin, and much more qualified. Perhaps he could have destroyed her by being more aggressive, but it would have been a risk. Palin in this confident mood would be no pushover. More aggression might have backfired, and could have aroused sympathy for his opponent. A clear win on points was all he needed, and that is what he got. Settling for this was wise. Obama and McCain go into the last round with the Democrat comfortably ahead.
Biden wisely ignored Palin for the most part and kept his focus on McCain – and he was devastating at times, without appearing angry, arrogant or overbearing. Palin is a distraction intended to turn this campaign into another battle in the culture wars and Biden didn’t fall for it.
The format was ideal for Palin – short answers, no follow-up. (Where Palin fell apart in the Couric interview was with the follow-up questions. For example, when Palin dodged a question on the financial bailout, Couric asked, “So what are the pros and cons?” That’s when the train derailed.) Just in case, the Republicans worked the ref, Gwen Ifill, ahead of the game by preemptively accusing her of a pro-Obama bias. She proved them wrong by asking no challenging follow-up questions – which was exactly the Republican goal. (Ifill was the other loser – she did a lousy job.)
I wrote to a friend hours before the debate how I expected it to play out:
Palin will go on the attack and have a lot of “zingers” that will get all the replay tomorrow. She doesn’t even have to directly address the questions if there is no follow up – just head directly into the most closely-related pre-programmed spiel. I would be surprised if she isn’t deemed the “winner” (by vastly exceeding expectations) in the spin tomorrow.
She even came right out early in
and more-or-less admitted that she was going to ignore the questions if they distracted her from the points she wanted to make: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people.” (Of course, that didn’t stop her boasting at the end of the debate about taking “tough questions”: “I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter.” And without follow-up.)
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She read straight off her notes (in some cases, reading the entire “answer”) … and by golly if she didn’t do a doggone good job of it (wink, wink – adorable nose scrunch). It was easy to forget this was a job interview to become vice president (and potentially the most powerful person on the planet). Palin has become a reality show. For that reason, this debate had higher ratings than the Obama-McCain debate (70 million viewers – 33% higher than the presidential debate). Indeed, it had higher ratings than any presidential debate ever other than the Carter-Reagan debate in 1980. (Similarly, her convention speech drew more viewers than any other speech at either convention, including those of Obama, McCain and both Clintons.)
I suspect over the next few days more attention will be drawn to some of the untrue or misleading statements she made or other aspects of the substance of her responses. I won’t get into that here, but just for the fun of it, one example:
Palin's final quote was from Ronald Reagan, warning that without vigilance, "you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free."
In fact, Reagan was not warning about a general lack of vigilance about freedom, he was warning what would happen if Medicare was enacted.
Do you think Palin really wanted to remind Americans that Republicans opposed Medicare?
For what it’s worth, according to the polls, Biden “won”:
CNN: Biden 51% Palin 36%
CBS: Biden 46% Palin 21%
Fox: Biden 61% Palin 39% Survey USA: Biden 51% Palin 32%
MediaCurves: Biden 67% 33% (independents only)
No surprise there. But even to score it in conventional terms suggests a conventional match-up. No one expected Palin to win on points – mere survival was enough for her to declare a victory of sorts. Prior to the debate an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 60% of Americans thought she lacked the experience to be president and 30% were less likely to vote for McCain as a result.
The debate didn’t appear to change many views on whether Palin was qualified to be president. According to the CBS poll, among the uncommitted voters they polled before the debate, it was Yes 42% No 54%. After the debate it was Yes 46% No 53%. (Despite the relative lack of movement, I find it astounding that 46% of an uncommitted poll sample could think Palin is qualified to president – PRESIDENT! Talk about a low bar. But, then, these are people who are still “uncommitted” at this late stage of the campaign.) Similarly, CNN’s poll of uncommitted voters found after the debate that 42% thought Palin was qualified vs. 87% for Biden. Biden also won on measures like being more in touch with “people like you.”
But I think Biden won in a more important sense: He demonstrated, yet again, the fundamental competence of the Obama-Biden ticket. If Americans feel comfortable that Obama is “ready to lead,” he wins. It’s that simple. Obama has shown that in the overall management of his campaign. He’s shown it in his response to the financial crisis. He’s shown it in his debate with McCain. And Biden reaffirmed it last night. Even if Palin managed to avoid another train wreck, the fact that it was in doubt can’t be good for the Republican ticket. McCain was tense and angry in his debate with Obama. He was all over the map in his response to the financial crisis. Palin was nervous and a bit frantic in the debate – which was understandable given the pressure on her. She beat expectations, but viewed in the context of the overall narrative of the campaign that wasn’t particularly reassuring.
I suspect the McCain campaign, having recovered somewhat from the Couric catastrophe, isn’t going to be taking any more chance with Palin. She will headline crowds of the party faithful, but I doubt you will see any press access whatsoever (apart from right-wing talk radio hosts). As incredible as it might seem, we will have a candidate on a major party ticket go from obscurity to the presidential election without being subjected to a single press conference. How bizarre (and scary) is that, and what does it say about politics in this country that the McCain campaign thinks they could get away with it? This is a job interview for the most important position in the world. An applicant for the position of day manager at TGI Friday would be subjected to more rigorous direct scrutiny.
I don’t particularly care for football or football metaphors. But they probably apply well here. McCain keeps going for the Hail Mary pass. His support of the “surge” in Iraq (a political touchdown). His nomination of Palin (a catch and fumble in the end zone). “Suspending” his campaign to provide HEROIC LEADERSHIP for the bailout plan (an interception). Meanwhile, the Obama-Biden team keeps the ball on the ground and methodically moves it down the field. Perfect execution. No mistakes. No drama. No HEROICS. At a time of national crisis, that is reassuring.
As even the (obnoxious) conservative columnist and FOX News pundit Charles Krauthammer acknowledged in the Washington Post yesterday:
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had a "second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament." Obama has … both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. That will likely be enough to make him president.The Biden-Palin debate is one more major campaign milestone passed. One more Obama win. Not a big one. Not “game changing.” No drama. Nothing HEROIC. But Obama is building his lead and the clock is running.
McCain was the big loser in the debate. Biden effectively skewered McCain on point after point. And Palin did nothing to change the opinions of those who thought she was thoroughly unqualified to be president. No one who puts “country first” would put her in a position where she could become the most powerful person on the planet. Which means either McCain loses ... or the country does.
Tina Fey does Palin again:
It’s hard to remember that a month ago, very few people had ever heard of Sarah Palin. McCain sprung his vice-presidential selection on us at the last minute, possibly under the impression that the country felt things had gotten too boring lately, and would appreciate the excitement of having a minimally experienced political unknown serving as backup to a 72-year-old cancer survivor. …
For reporters hoping to question her, she has been determinedly unfindable, a Judge Crater from Juneau. And after the Couric debacle, you can bet your boots that the campaign is going to take Palin’s debate performance, declare victory and wrap her up until after the election.
… The people boosting Palin’s triumph were not celebrating because she demonstrated that she is qualified to be president if something ever happened to John McCain. They were cheering her success in covering up her lack of knowledge about the things she would have to deal with if she wound up running the country.