Overall, I think that Biden and Palin did well. Biden met expdectations, and Palin exceeded them. However, neither one really did much to change the overall narrative, which has been trending in Obama’s favor.
Palin’s basic objective was to avoid damaging McCain, and attempt to attract independent voters. She succeeded in doing no harm, but I will be very surprised if the post-debate polls show that she made any inroads to the indie vote. Part of this was her demeanor – she was outright disrespectful to Biden, at one point accusing him of “raising the white flag of surrender” after he’d just made it clear that the Obama-Biden approach was motivated by a desire to win the war onterror (but disagrees with McCain-Palin on fundamental assumptions about how best to achieve victory). Her characterization was a caricature using right-wing stereotypes culled straight from the partisan blogsphere, not the rhetoric of a moderate. In another exchange, she made a clumsy attempt to invoke Reagan’s famous debate line “there you go again”, which was jarring because it felt so forced. And when Biden choked up over the story of his first wife and infant daughter’s deaths, she didn’t react in any compassionate way you’d expect, instead launching straight into her maverick talking point again ad-infinitum, as if Biden had just been wonking about policy rather than relating something intensely personal. It dehumanized her in comparison and made her look cold.
Palin did score some points, however – most notably in using Biden’s own primary-season rhetoric against him (and Obama). Biden tended to parry these by changing the subject rather than addressing them – but the issue about his vote for the Iraq war resolution was a weakness that Palin exploited well. She also shined when talking about energy independence, despite Biden’s fact-check attempt about McCain’s voting record. As far as appearing vice-presidential, she reminded me of President Bush at times, in terms of her rhetoric and vagueness (especially in closing about freedom being on the march at whatnot), so I suppose she cleared that hurdle, albeit a low one. She certainly didn’t get crushed by Biden, a man 30 years her senior and demonstrably more well-versed in all aspects of policy and issues than she. That in itself is an achievement – low expectations, sure, but valid expectations nevertheless.
Palin’s main failure in this debate however was to give independent and undecided voters something substantial to compare against. She instead attempted to spin the positions in a vague sense so that they sounded better than they were. In so doing, she permitted Biden to do all the description and make all the distinctions, which was an opportunity he took every advantage of. The best example of this was in the early exchange about health care, where Palin gamely tried to pass off their plan as a “$5,000 tax cut”. Biden’s comeback, that “with one hand giveth, the other taketh away” – was devastating, especially with the fact that typical insurance costs your employer $12,000:
with one hand you giveth, the other you take it. You know how Barack
Obama — excuse me, do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax
credit you’re going to get, a family will get?
He taxes as
income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a
health care plan through your employer. That’s how he raises $3.6
trillion, on your — taxing your health care benefit to give you a
$5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the
And then you’re going to have to replace a
$12,000 — that’s the average cost of the plan you get through your
employer — it costs $12,000. You’re going to have to pay — replace a
$12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty
million of you will be dropped.
So you’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company.
Another example was Palin’s over-reliance on the buzzword “maverick”, which she invoked repeatedly without ever really explaining what it meant. Biden seized upon the word and laid waste to the claim:
Look, the maverick — let’s talk about the maverick John McCain is.
And, again, I love him. He’s been a maverick on some issues, but he has
been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives.
voted four out of five times for George Bush’s budget, which put us a
half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt
since he’s got there.
He has not been a maverick in providing
health care for people. He has voted against — he voted including
another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care
plan, when he voted in the United States Senate.
He’s not been a
maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and
significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college.
He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on
virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really
talk about around their kitchen table.
Can we send — can we get
Mom’s MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can’t –
we can’t make it. How are we going to heat the — heat the house this
He voted against even providing for what they call
LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the
roof in the winter.
So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.
Palin didn’t use the word maverick again after that. Biden’s attack against the term would not have been even a tenth as effective had Palin not abused the word throughout the debate so often.
Biden showed his strongest command ofthe issues with respect to national security, especially Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He forcefully states the basic lines of disagreement – whether Iraq or Afghanistan is the “central front”, whether the surge strategy was applicable, and contrasting the state of funding of the two theaters of combat. Palin, in contrast, had no specifics to offer whatsoever, let alone articulating any area of disagreement (other than accusing Biden of surrender, as I noted above. A jarring, unprofessional moment.)
On other issues, like gay marriage and climate change, Biden drew a sharp and distinct line about what he and Obama believed, which made Palin’s roundabout answers seem evasive. And on questions like “What’s your weakness” and “what have you changed your mind on” – standard interview questions anyone who has ever gne job-hunting with resume in hand has heard before – Biden actually answered the question, whereas Palin tried to change the subject. The contrast was very clear between the two, with Biden being direct and Palin squirming every which way.
Biden’s main objective in the debate was to show off his knowledge, and to undermine McCain. On both counts he succeeded admirably. Still, i don’t count this as a victory for him, because in a sense the good outcome is the neutral one. He managed to provide solid contrast to Palin for the watching independent’ benefit, but its unlikely he converted any McCain voters over. He probably only solidified the leaners who may have had some doubts about Obama. His emphatic statement about playing an active role in every major decision of the Obama Administration was probably the most reassuring thing he said to those voters, for whom Obama’s experience remains the main concern.
If neither won, was it a draw, or did both win? No. In the end, the debate changed absolutely nothing, I wager. We will see what the polls say over the next few days.