A Wink, A Nod and A Loss
ST. LOUIS, Missouri - In the aftermath and varying opinions of the overhyped debate
between the Democratic and Republican candidates for vice presidents,
two areas of consensus appear to emege: Sarah Palin didn't do anything
TOO stupid and voters, the ones who still make the decisions on election day, feel Joe Biden won the night.
Incredibly, Palin held her own by not debating: She announced
straight out that she would not answer the questions but would stick to
talking points. It was, perhaps, the only way she could stay out of
trouble but it showcased an inexperienced, inept candidate who has
trouble with facts and only a faint relationship with specifics.
She winked. She nodded. She grinned. She said "betcha." But she didn't debate.
In a format where clear winners are impossible unless one side or
the others screws up big time or one side of the other scores a
"knockout," neither Palin nor Biden emerged as the clear winner. Still,
Palin did nothing to stem the doubts that remain about her ability to
be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.
Sarah Palin has experience being a runner-up -- which will come in
handy in November. Tonight she barely kept up. In advance, the
commenteriat almost unanimously agreed on a false measure of this
debate. Judging by "expectation" meant that pundits could conceivably
award a faux victory if she was half-coherent and modestly informed
after a cram session in Arizona. But voters apply an absolute standard,
not a low water mark of expectations: With America facing two wars and
economic disaster, Americans ask if a candidate is up to the job.
By any rational assessment, Palin wasn't tonight -- and hasn't been
any time she's not reading a teleprompter. President Palin-- the
nuclear button, recession, the health care crisis, global warming
(which she doesn't believe in, as she believes in creationism) -- well,
it simply doesn't compute. A part in Fargo, yes -- that office in the West Wing, no.
Millions of Americans were watching Thursday night's
vice-presidential debate waiting for a demolition derby moment -
another crash by GOP running mate Sarah Palin, another serving of raw
material for the writers at "Saturday Night Live."
By that standard, she got out alive, though there were white-knuckle
moments along the way: questions that were answered with painfully
obvious talking points that betrayed scant knowledge of the issue at
hand, and sometimes little relevance to the question that had been
But recent days have given John McCain's team little reason to
suppose that not-that-bad is good enough. The Republican ticket's
sliding polls and narrowing electoral map gave it a different
imperative in her showdown against Joe Biden. That was to alter the
trajectory of the race in a way reminiscent of how Palin first
enlivened Republicans-it seems long ago now-when she joined the ticket
in late August.
Absent new polling, there is little reason to think she cleared that bar in St. Louis.
To the contrary, it is hard to count any objective measures by which
Biden did not clearly win the encounter. She looked like she was trying
to get people to take her seriously. He looked like he was running for
vice president. His answers were more responsive to the questions, far
more detailed and less rhetorical.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin spent much of the past two weeks on the
defensive, hounded by critics over halting performances in television
interviews and questioned even by conservative writers doubtful about
whether she is ready to be vice president.
But the Palin who showed up for Thursday's debate against Democratic
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was anything but defensive. In a fast-paced
exchange about a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, she was
the aggressive campaigner who in the first weeks of her candidacy had
so energized the Republican faithful.
As a result, what was touted as a moment of truth for Palin instead
turned into a lively and civil argument between the two vice
presidential nominees over the policies and records of Sens. John
McCain and Barack Obama. For 90 minutes, they sparred over Iraq and
Afghanistan, energy and global warming, the economy and taxes, and
which candidate would do more to protect the middle class.
One debate will not erase doubts that have been building about
Palin's capacity to serve as vice president, but the effect of the
encounter may shift the focus away from the sideshow that Palin has
become and put it back on the two presidential nominees and what they
would do for the country. Thursday's debate adds to the importance of
the two remaining presidential debates, the first of which will be held
Palin produced at a moment McCain needed it most. In the past two
weeks, his standing has deteriorated as the focus of national attention
has shifted almost entirely to the economy. National and state polls
show Obama gaining ground, and the preface to the debate Thursday was
the news that McCain is pulling out of Michigan, once seen as a
Tom Shales of The Post was more pointed:
Sarah Palin looked as though she had prepared for her appearance at
the vice presidential debate last night by studying Tina Fey's
impressions of her on "Saturday Night Live." She twinkled and winked
and piled on the perkiness, a "darn right" here and an "I'll betcha"
The challenge to Fey, who is scheduled to play the Alaska governor
and Republican candidate again on the next "SNL" broadcast, will be to
out-Palin Palin, to make the parody more outrageous than the original.
At the same time, Palin seemed determined to banish thoughts of her
as airheaded and inexperienced; she was really debating her own public
image rather than Sen. Joe Biden. She subverted the whole purpose of
the exercise by merely repeating the key points of her running mate,
Sen. John McCain, and ignoring questions that called for more specific
A focus group for CBS and the viewer response line for CNN scored
the debate for Biden and undecideds said they were leaning more towards
the Obama-Biden ticket after watching the debate.
With the vice president sideshow over, the focus now switches back
to the two principal candidates and their two remaining debates.