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Biden-Palin Debate Analysis

Last week's debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin may not have lived up to the hype in that Biden didn't have to extract his foot from his mouth and Palin didn't experience a nuclear meltdown on stage. However, the debate was highly instructive in that it showed the clear contrast in the debating styles and political appeal of both candidates. The format, which allowed for considerably less back-and-forth between the two candidates, clearly advantaged Palin and allowed her to stay in her comfort zone. And because this debate served as Sarah Palin's much anticipated coming out party, this was both candidates' last and best opportunity to make the case for their respective tickets. After the debate, both candidates will likely fade into relative obscurity while Barack Obama and John McCain regain their traditional positions on center stage.

Joe Biden delivered a strong, competent, and substantive performance. He spoke at great length and in great detail in response to almost every question and clearly understood what he was talking about. Even on the occasions when he may have been a little loose with his facts, he came across as strong and knowledgeable. One can only wonder how many Democrats lamented the fact that their ticket wasn't flipped with Biden running for the top job and Obama running for the second slot. And because Palin was the only other person on stage, he came across as mature, presidential, and steady.

Unfortunately for Biden, this debate put him in a no-win situation. He didn't want to further legitimize Palin by spending more time going after her than hammering home Barack Obama's policies. He also didn't want to risk setting himself up for a zinger from the feisty Palin even though he was clearly tempted to go on the attack. And of course, debating a female presents unique challenges to male politicians because they can't risk turning female voters off by being too aggressive or patronizing. And given the low expectations Palin had coming into this debate and all the attention she was getting, he was clearly the second person on stage. Thus, Biden he had to be very careful with finding the right balance between ignoring Palin's attacks, scoring clean hits off of her, and defending Obama's policies at the expense of McCain's. Palin was considerably less encumbered.

Biden's opponent was clearly John McCain. Whenever he did go after Palin, he did so by trying to drive a wedge between her, McCain, and the Republican base. For example, when the subject of energy came up, Biden congratulated Palin for implementing a windfall profits tax on energy companies so that this money could be invested in exploring alternative energy sources. Republicans, of course, are averse to any and all tax increases, so Biden's lauding Palin for raising taxes may cause the McCain-Palin ticket to have to explain why she did so on the campaign trail.

Another deft political move by Biden, though it was certainly not intentional, was when he turned the sexism card back on Palin by saying that men too know what it's like to raise children as single parents. He choked up, obviously remembering the tragic death of his wife and infant daughter more than 30 years ago. For voters who commonly viewed Biden as a windbag or a pompous, stale senator, this was a humanizing moment that certainly connected with voters.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, had a different mission altogether. After being lampooned by comedians and Saturday Night Live for her series of embarrassing interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, she had to show voters that she was 1) not a lightweight and 2) a serious candidate for vice president. This debate had the potential to ruin McCain's campaign had she bombed because his own judgment would have been called into question. Fortunately for Palin, she did not replicate her performance with Katie Couric and displayed the fire and energy that characterized her successful debut at the Republican National Convention last month.

While Biden was tapped by Obama to shore up his political weaknesses, Palin was tapped by McCain to shore up his Republican base. Palin's audience at the debate was nervous conservatives, rural voters, independent women, and people who are fed up with the federal government. Her primary appeal is her nonpolitical way of speaking. Instead of coming across like a stuffy Washingtonian, she comes across like an average approachable person that you'd meet at a local farmer's market. Policy heft is not her strength. Emotion and tapping into identity politics are the engine driving Palin's appeal.

In terms of her debating skills, Palin had a tendency to ignore the questions that were asked and talk about subjects she was more comfortable with. The moderator let her get away with this, presumably because she (Gwen Ifill) did not want to be tarred as biased against Palin in light of the book she's writing that some argue makes her pro-Obama. Palin even flat out said that she wasn't going to answer the moderator's questions because she wanted to "talk directly to the American people." When she did answer a question directly, she employed a strategy of answering it quickly before going off on a different subject and spending the majority of time addressing this new subject, rather than the original question that was asked. This likely irritated Biden because he had no idea what to expect from her and because she was not following the rules of the debate. (Of course, there are no real rules.)

Palin used a lot of red meat in her responses that the Republican base liked. She accused Biden of "wanting to surrender" in Iraq, kept talking about how Obama wanted to raise taxes, and accused Obama of cutting off funding for the troops. To his credit, Biden did a good job of parrying most of Palin's attacks, but he spent more time on defense than he would have liked because at times, it seemed that Biden's refutations were ignored. (Palin accused Obama of cutting funding for the troops in Iraq more than once, for example.)

Regarding her substance, Palin made several assertions that likely raised a few eyebrows among policy wonks. For example, she said she wanted to increase the powers of the vice presidency. After Dick Cheney's term, this may frighten a lot of voters. And secondly, she wants to relocate the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That has obvious foreign policy implications. Will voters be alarmed by these two statements? Or have we entered an era in which facts don't matter as much as they used to?

I mentioned earlier that Palin had two goals coming into this debate: 1) not coming across as vapid, and 2) showing that she was ready for the vice presidency. She definitely accomplished the first goal, but arguably not the second. Because the expectations were so low for Palin prior to the debate, a "win" for her is accompanied by statements like "she can speak in complete sentences" or "she's sounded more coherent than she did in her previous interviews." That's not the same as "she's clearly ready to be Vice President." She did herself a huge disservice by quipping, "I've only been at this for, like, five weeks" and using that as an excuse either for not knowing how to answer a question or for making a mistake.

Palin may have endeared herself to voters by winking to the audience and giving shout-outs to third graders at her local elementary school. However, the huge risk for Palin is that because she had dug herself into such a large hole because of her previous poor interviews, these "cute" gestures may make her come across as anything but serious. Voters expect a certain level of decor from their elected officials and using expressions like "say it ain't so, Joe" does not display the maturity that many voters expect from their national leaders.

Voters who were against Palin before the debate are likely still against her. Voters who loved her before the date are probably ecstatic about her now. She is clearly the more polarizing of the two vice presidential candidates, so the more popular she becomes with one segment of the electorate, the less popular she becomes with the other. Voters not in the Palin camp probably did not hear a lot of substance in her remarks, and they might have found her to be incoherent at times. But perhaps that's not what matters to a wide swath of the electorate who is sick of politicians in general, especially after the congressional wrangling over the past two weeks.

Ultimately, I believe the Palin pick may be an unsuccessful strategy for John McCain for one particular reason. Even though Palin is designed to energize Republicans, the Republican base is smaller than the Democratic base this year. Palin's appeal beyond Republicans and conservative-leaning independents is considerably reduced.

To voters who were skeptical of Palin, they probably found her to be arrogant, annoying, immature, and perhaps a bit rude. After Biden choked up when talking about single fathers, Palin coldly answered her debate question without acknowledging Biden's tragedy. And when Biden mentioned that his wife was a teacher with a PhD, Palin mocked her by saying that "her reward is in heaven." She also needlessly corrected Biden for botching the Republican chant of "Drill Baby Drill." These kinds of wisecracks may be what endear Palin to Republicans, but they are quite off-putting to everyone else and may remind them of George W. Bush. It is up for debate who is the more refreshing burst of fresh air: the casual "every Mom" from Alaska or the intellectual from Delaware.

It must be stressed however, that Palin did just fine at the debate, especially as far as Republicans are concerned. However, she may have done more good for herself than the actual McCain-Palin ticket because her tone may have reinforced the temperament issue that is creeping into the political dialogue. However, even if McCain loses this election, do not be surprised to see Palin on the national stage again in 2012. Biden delivered a strong performance as well, but probably got lost in the shuffle because of all the attention Palin was garnering. At least he didn't do Obama any harm.

Coming out of the debate, the storyline now switches to the economy and the recently passed economic relief bill. Joe Biden spent a lot more time talking about so-called kitchen table issues like health care and jobs. Sarah Palin spoke in more general terms about winning in Iraq, cutting taxes, and drilling. She also tried to get voters to identify with her with her populist (e.g., folksy) way of speaking.

At the very least, Palin got the jokes about her intelligence out of the headlines and should receive more favorable press coverage from now on. However, questions may still linger in voters' minds because they might not know which Sarah Palin is real. And if she continues to stay away from the national media, these questions might not go away. Of course, if the media still complain, that works to Palin's advantage because she's not just running against the Obama-Biden campaign. She's running against everything that is not Fox News and talk radio.

John McCain can now breathe a huge sigh of relief.

7 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

It is time we hear from someone who not a DC freak. When this is over, and NObama wins, then she should write a book and pick up a million or two, and then eveyone can whistle, and the Palin family can live a happy life in Alaska a little above the middle class. JACK Queen at quebjb18@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Palin could have walked on water and turned city water to Evian and the libs would still say she is barely able to function. It is so funny that they demonize her for the shortcomings of NObama. She is far more qualified than he is, but the libs like Palmer have to shore up the NObama rhetoric.

Khaki Elephant said...

On Biden: Even on the occasions when he may have been a little loose with his facts, he came across as strong and knowledgeable.

On Palin: Palin made several assertions that likely raised a few eyebrows among more educated voters.

Now, I would expect this kind of spin from somebody like, oh, say . . . me, but from you, Anthony? Biden was a little "loose" with the facts while Palin raised eyebrows among the educated? Come now,on virtually every topic Biden's answers swam in error or deception. You can't say that Biden answered questions directly when his answers were bogus. Here are just a few:

* The Constitution never mentions the Vice Presidency in the Legislative section, only in Article I when discussing the Executive branch (Oops, Joe, Article I actually covers the legislative branch and identifies the Veep as "president" of the legislative body known as the senate.)

* Obama taxes = Reagan taxes (only in a world where 20s = 30s)

* Obama's tax plan only effects folks making $250,000+ (Well, give or take $50,000 . . . and everybody who works for a small business that falls in or above that bracket)

* We couldn't get oil from new drilling for 10 years (hmmm, the current Alaskan pipeline took only a little over 2 years from ground breaking to functioning and it's 800 miles long. An ANWR pipeline would be a mere 75 miles long).

* McCain and Obama voted "the exact same way" on a tax vote (guess he didn't think an educated voter could look this one up)

*Obama never said that he would sit down unconditionally with Mahmoud Ahmedinijad (Roll the tape)

* McCain voted against supporting the troops too (Lord, I wish Palin would have looked at the camera and said, "does anybody in America believe that?" McCain pushed a new bill that didn't contain the time table or a veto threat and it passed . . . no thanks to Obama).

* I support clean coal (I guess the coal miner vote suddenly matters to Obama/Biden)

* Palin's crunch on big oil was a "windfall profits tax." (No, it wasn't. The oil companies were hit when Palin reformed the State tax and revenue system).

* McCain is anti-regulation (Oops, we have video of McCain calling for more regulation of Fannie & Freddie. Speaking of which, we're all still waiting for that proof the Obama made a similar warning).

* The Bailout matches Obama's plan (Except that Obama's plan also called for additional emergency stimulus and global coordination with the G-20)

Of course, there were more but I trust you get the picture.

Anthony Palmer said...


When I mentioned "educated voters" in regards to Palin, I was referring to the idea that some of the issues she mentioned probably wouldn't raise any flags except among voters who really understand government and world affairs. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem, for example, is NOT something the casual voter thinks about. But the foreign policy types might think it's a big deal.

This is not to say that Sarah Palin is only accessible to "uneducated" voters but rather that only voters who are really paying attention would have been able to understand some of what she was saying. Biden is a policy wonk in general, so a lot of what he said might have gone over voters' heads.

I'll rewrite this part of my post to make it appear less condescending. It certainly wasn't intended.

Anonymous said...


I really don't understand why people continue to delude themselves with the whole "Palin is experienced" thing. Literally, every time she or someone else lists her qualifications, I laugh out loud. There are a few things I'd like to point out pertaining to this argument.

1) Not all experience is equal.
Using a number of years spent gaining something called "executive experience" seems pretty convincing until you actually think about it. Was her experience of running a small town in Alaska anything like what making decisions as president would be? Obviously the issues, the environment, and the politics of the two are completely different.

2) Palin has no/few ties to Washington. Now I know this argument isn't a winner, as many people like the idea of an average joe/jil going and taking on the big bad establishment, but outsiders with no inside connections rarely set their own agenda, simply because they don't understand the politics of DC and politics, however dirty it may be, is how we get things done in this country.

3) Palin has no foreign policy experience. This needs no explanation I hope, unless you really do think that proximity to a foreign state qualifies as experience.


DB said...

Palin exceeded my expectations. She exceeded everyones. Talk about low expectations when that is the lead to every story on the debate. Talk about low standards when everyone mentions that she didn't stumble. She didn't know jack on foreign policy, nor was she prepared to defend McCain's record. She looked silly out there compared to Biden.

The McCain camp has neglected her as an opportunity to reach out to voters by shielding her from the people and by selling her as a total package when she clearly is not. Obama is weak on experience, so he picked Biden and plays that up. McCain is weak on his conservative credentials, so he picked Palin and played her up as a complete package when he should have sold her values. In defense of Palin (this is rare for me), McCain will be responsible if he loses this election, not Palin.

Btw Anthony, you are the number one listed blog right now on the new google blog search under the Palin-Biden Debate, which is the third most popular subject up right now. Gratz

Brett said...

She didn't exceed my expectations - I've seen video of her earlier debate for Alaskan Governor, and she did the same type of thing: emptiness with a smile, covered over with lots of irrelevant anecdotes and simplifications.

To be blunt, this debate was absolutely appalling. Ifill let Palin get away with bloody murder, only once asking follow-up questions (which she asked to both of them), allowing her to outright ignore the question on most circumstances to talk about whatever she wanted, and generally letting her use the one time where she's on the spot with no way for her handlers to save her as a press conference. Can you imagine Tim Russert allowing that? Or Couric? Or even Tom Brokaw, the moderator of the next debate? It was an utter travesty, and it's a testament to the inanity of much of the Republican base that they think not-falling-apart-on-stage (which tends to be a requirement of any politician in the US) was a good thing.

Palin could have walked on water and turned city water to Evian and the libs would still say she is barely able to function. It is so funny that they demonize her for the shortcomings of NObama. She is far more qualified than he is, but the libs like Palmer have to shore up the NObama rhetoric.

I don't recall Obama ever saying he outright wouldn't answer the questions. I don't recall Obama ever mangling the English language to the extreme that Palin did. But then, Obama's career has involved a wide range of state and national issues, in addition to his educational background and teaching of constitutional law - whereas Palin basically went for broke on extracting more money from the oil companies in Alaska, and won because the corrupt-as-hell Alaskan governor before her completely under-estimated her.

We don't ask for a lot from politicians, but generally most of us who take an actual interest in finding out the truth and building an evidence-based view of politics ask that a politician at least know what the issues are for their campaign and be able to defend them coherently. Even McCain wasn't as completely incomprehensible as Palin was on thursday.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.