We’re at the debate and the reliable Gwen Ifill is serving as moderator, live from Washington University in St. Louis. Even as the candidates are introduced and stride across the stage, it’s Palin who presses into Biden even before they get down to business. “Can I call you Joe?”, she asks as they shake hands and purportedly meet for the very first time. Touche! Take that! She wants to be at once disarming and upfront, and not relegated to the position of a subordinate, of someone who is going to spend the next 90 minutes saying “Senator Biden”. (Interestingly, it is he who refers to her as “Governor Palin” because “Sarah” would be just too paternalistic.) But Palin is too informal and “real” for all this, and by grabbing the folksy mantle right away, she manages to sell the impression that she is alert and ready to get started.
Palin was, to be frank, quick witted and direct, speaking right in front to the camera and in her words, talking to “the American people”. She was not at a loss for words, as she was in her interviews with Katie Couric. She was not, alas, a train wreck. Because the expectations were so low for her, for her to simply respond somewhat ably to the questions (which she didn’t always do), she at least held her own for the most part. And when the going was rough, she simply hewed to her jarringly populist line that she is speaking for the normal “Joe Sixpack” out there who wanted “mavericks” like her to change things in Washington. The problem with this is that the top of her ticket has been saying this, much to the chagrin of the Republican party, which doesn’t necessarily want things stirred up. The conservative base does not have a populist image; far from it –in the first Presidential debate McCain never said the word “middle class”, and it was like some kind of allergy to the term. The lie that is being spread is that McCain and, especially in the last few weeks with Palin, are even thought of as the party of the “people”, as if there are some historical links there to preserve. Palin shows up at the debate to reiterate this point unconvincingly. It’s as if her ticket is willing to suspend disbelief because they think it strikes some kind of spark, some kind of populist message.
This was Palin’s tack during much of the debate in fact. Her rhetorical skills were such that she was able to mask her own inadequacies by appealing to the fact that the American people wanted “straight talk”. She tried to admonish the mainstream media at one point by saying that she wasn’t going to answer questions the way they wanted her to. But the fact is this: in several instances she just didn’t answer Ifill’s questions at all. The lack of depth was clear, but even then she threw this back at us: hey, guys, I have only been at this for the past five weeks, there’s a lot to learn and this is hard! This is why she repeatedly moved the conversation back to areas she does know about (or says she does) –energy and Alaska, and all the small town values associated with that. What was also clear in her performance is that she was not tightly wound-up, memorizing lines or coaching points by the Rick Davises, Randy Scheunemanns or Nicolle Wallaces within the McCain campaign. For the evening, she was allowed to reclaim the feisty charm that she exhibited before and not let her be stuffed with factoids that the average American a) cares little about and b) don’t necessarily carry over well in a debate format that punishes you for remembering details like an egghead but instead rewards the gotcha! moments and sound bites for the next day.
The troubling aspect about Sarah Palin is that this folksiness carries some value out there in America’s heartland. Being able to touch on some kind of emotional heartstrings, being able to seem “real” and not some wonky bureaucrat who simply recites gloom-and-doom figure –these are rather powerful and (again) disarming characteristics that she can display in this kind of format. She can go toe to toe because she thinks she doesn’t have to get all that technical with us (it’s boring) or discuss minutae of economic policy because all you (in your warm living rooms) want to hear is that there are some bad guys who are “corrupt” and that you’re going to fight back. But what happens when it’s revealed that you really don’t know what you’re talking about? The lie that she perpetrates is that this hockey-Mom-speak, the one that appealed tonight (a “shoutout! How hip-hop!) to a third-grade class, and to all those “working people” (as opposed to “working class people”), the speak that talks about faith and God, and peppers her responses with class and regional code-expressions like “Doggone it” and “You betcha!” –this is what is supposed to pass for a candidacy for the second highest office in the land. It’s telling that one of the most interesting exchanges occurred when Ifill asked what would happen if –God forbid (!)—either of the two would have to step in if their running mates was not in office. Not only could Palin not answer what is a relatively softball question properly, but she showed most glaringly, that she is completely unfit for office. Who won the debate? Who the hell cares? Come 32 days, we need someone in charge to take over.
It’s not just that Palin seemed out of her league in discussing foreign policy or the current fiscal crisis. Or that she got the name wrong of the US commander in charge of troops in Iraq. Or that she referred glibly to the “Castro brothers” as if they were a couple of guys down the street just hanging out. She is able. She is somewhat competent as a speaker. She will someday have the gravitas to become a national leader and become, say in 2012, a major figure in her party and she is sure getting a rapid education and unbelievable boost here all of a sudden. It’s so obvious that she pales in comparison to a man who has over 35 years of legislative experience, and the more we insist that she “held her own” is to also believe the lie that this alone constitutes effective leadership —the ultimate leadership, of course—for this country. So why are we allowing this example of mediocrity, this media figure, this “phenomenon” to flourish as if we are allowing ourselves to lower our expectations of our top candidates in the process? Are we also saying we need to lower our sights on the most important positions in this country?
Joe Conason raises an excellent point on this matter. He wants to know how Palin’s performance at the debates speaks to a growing ignorance in American society about meritocracy. For decades, Republicans used to criticize Democrats on their own merit, arguing that some of its leaders were simply unqualified for office. But this is rearing its head in the opposite way. Only this time the Republicans are taking a cynical stance that says that as long as the figure in question is “competent enough” and can talk the talk, it doesn’t matter if there’s that much there. In Conason’s words:
Actually, the Palin phenomenon is the culmination of a trend that can be traced back to Dan Quayle, the undistinguished Indiana senator whose elevation onto the Republican ticket in 1988 had nothing to do with intellect or experience and everything to do with the youthful appeal of a handsome blond frat boy. (That was how Republican strategists thought they would attract female voters back then, which must be why they believe Palin represents progress.) Quayle too was unable to articulate, let alone defend, the policy positions for which he was supposed to be campaigning. He too had to undergo the surgical stuffing of stock phrases into his head as a minimal substitute for knowledge and thought. And in the same sad way, he too benefited from the drastically reduced expectations applied to anyone whose inadequacy is so obvious.
Biden, by contrast, was classic Biden, and fortunately he kept his sometimes longwindedness in check. He actually took a few minutes at the outset to get started. He seemed to try to gauge how best to read Palin –i.e., not appear to seem too pushy or domineering. He came back hard and strong in discussions about the economy and Palin’s charge that Obama would raise taxes. Biden’s retort that, given her definition of taxes, then McCain voted to raise taxes hundreds of times was certainly noteworthy, as was his back and forth with her about his expansive knowledge about the war in Iraq and countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. For Palin, everything, from the much hallowed “surge” in “Eye-Raq” to the withdrawal of troops seemed to be some kind of barometer of American patriotism and leadership. She was a spectator in the bleachers throughout many of the most spirited exchanges she had with Biden. Biden was demonstrably in control because he spoke about what he knew.
Back to Soledad O’Brien at the end of the debate. She was still shouting to the camera, after Wolf Blitzer had quickly polled all the “best political analysts on TV” about who had won the debate. (All had chosen Biden save for the partisans Ed Rollins, Alex Castellanos and Leslie Sanchez). Cue O’Brien, who was now hectoring to the crowd of “average Americans” trying to stir up a little excitement, as she is wont to do. She took a quick poll by show of hands. They were unanimous that Biden had prevailed. They also felt that Obama/Biden would win the election. They didn’t think Palin was the disaster she could have been. Think about this for a second, folks –before you head out and escape from O’Brien’s loud voice and badgering. You are being asked whether you felt that because a candidate did not break down at this moment just over one month before the presidential election, you are maybe ready to one day vote for her and her running mate to lead this country. Imagine where we are as a country when the candidate in question implies that she herself “is new at this” and ask yourself once again what her real qualifications are. Now go and dig into the fried shrimp platter. Get there early because they go fast.
Vice Presidential Debate Winner: Biden, decisively.