Sarah Palin has become the focus of the presidential election campaign to an astonishing degree.
At first, that worked in McCain’s favour. Later — particularly after the Katie Couric interview was released, piecemeal, with a new gob-smacking installment each day — Palin became something of a liability.
Now that the vice-presidential debate is over, I hope that Palin will fade into the background. I’d like to turn the page and talk about something else.
I don’t enjoy playing the role of the cynical old bastard. But here I go — I hope for the last time — in response to the debate.
At least among Republican supporters, many people seem to think that Palin did a great job. Her performance was an enormous improvement over the Couric interview, right?
Well … yes and no. It was better insofar as Palin appeared confident. She was folksy; she was feisty; she looked directly into the camera; she went on the offensive; she didn’t completely freeze up at any point.
But Palin’s performance was being measured against low expectations. David Brooks reveals just how low the bar was set:
Was this woman capable of completing an extemporaneous paragraph — a collection of sentences with subjects, verbs, objects and, if possible, an actual meaning?
By the end of her opening answers, it was clear she would meet the test.
Then again, maybe she didn’t. Go back and read the transcript of the debate.
For example, Ifill asked Palin about a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Here’s Palin’s response, in its entirety:
A two-state solution is the solution. And Secretary Rice, having recently met with leaders on one side or the other there, also, still in these waning days of the Bush administration, trying to forge that peace, and that needs to be done, and that will be top of an agenda item, also, under a McCain-Palin administration.
Israel is our strongest and best ally in the Middle East. We have got to assure them that we will never allow a second Holocaust, despite, again, warnings from Iran and any other country that would seek to destroy Israel, that that is what they would like to see.
We will support Israel. A two-state solution, building our embassy, also, in Jerusalem, those things that we look forward to being able to accomplish, with this peace-seeking nation, and they have a track record of being able to forge these peace agreements.
They succeeded with Jordan. They succeeded with Egypt. I’m sure that we’re going to see more success there, also.
It’s got to be a commitment of the United States of America, though. And I can promise you, in a McCain-Palin administration, that commitment is there to work with our friends in Israel.
That’s pretty incoherent.
Again: Ifill said to Palin, “Let’s talk about climate change. What is true and what is false about what we have heard, read, discussed, debated about the causes of climate change?”
Yes. Well, as the nation’s only Arctic state and being the governor of that state, Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it’s real.
I’m not one to attribute every man — activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.
But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don’t want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?
To positively affect the impacts? The rest of Palin’s answer is less garbled, but note how much trouble she’s still having, “completing an extemporaneous paragraph — a collection of sentences with subjects, verbs, objects and, if possible, an actual meaning.”
On climate change, this is the second time Palin has reversed the order of her words (saying that the activities of man are attributable to climate change). And there’s another example of reversed word order here:
It’s a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that’s affecting Wall Street.
Presumably she means to say that the toxic mess is on Wall Street, whence it trickles down to roil Main Street. Again:
And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain.
Surely she means to say that her pick as V.P. is attributable to her executive experience.
I realize the last example, in particular, is nit-picking. But David Brooks set the standard, not me. Coherent sentences = a passing grade; incoherence = failure.
Let’s take another example. On the topic of education, toward the end of the debate, Palin volunteered this garbled statement:
You [Senator Biden] mentioned education and I’m glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he’s a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here’s a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate.
Education credit in America has been in some sense in some of our states just accepted to be a little bit lax and we have got to increase the standards. No Child Left Behind was implemented. It’s not doing the job though. We need flexibility in No Child Left Behind. We need to put more of an emphasis on the profession of teaching. We need to make sure that education in either one of our agendas, I think, absolute top of the line. My kids as public school participants right now, it’s near and dear to my heart. I’m very, very concerned about where we’re going with education and we have got to ramp it up and put more attention in that arena.
In sum: During the debate, Palin made the same sort of mistakes she had made in the Couric interview. Specifically, she garbled her words and cycled through a laundry list of talking points on any given topic (e.g. on the Israeli/Palestinian question).
Palin’s presentation was markedly better than it was in the Couric interview; the content of her answers, only marginally so.
The result, if you weren’t mesmerized by Palin’s winking and such —
I’m sure I’m not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, “Hey, I think she just winked at me.” And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.
— was a very one-sided debate. Time and time again, Joe Biden offered a biting critique of John McCain’s policy platform; time and time again, Sarah Palin failed to respond.
Here’s a lengthy, key excerpt from the transcript:
BIDEN: John on 20 different occasions in the previous year and a half called for more deregulation. As a matter of fact, John recently wrote an article in a major magazine saying that he wants to do for the health care industry deregulate it and let the free market move like he did for the banking industry. …
IFILL: Governor, please if you want to respond to what he said about Sen. McCain’s comments about health care?
PALIN: I would like to respond about the tax increases. We can speak in agreement here that darn right we need tax relief for Americans so that jobs can be created here. … Barack Obama even supported increasing taxes as late as last year for those families making only $42,000 a year. …
BIDEN: The charge is absolutely not true. Barack Obama did not vote to raise taxes. … But if you notice, Gwen, the governor did not answer the question about deregulation, did not answer the question of defending John McCain about not going along with the deregulation, letting Wall Street run wild. He did support deregulation almost across the board. That’s why we got into so much trouble.
IFILL: Would you like to have an opportunity to answer that before we move on?
PALIN: I’m still on the tax thing because I want to correct you on that again. And I want to let you know what I did as a mayor and as a governor. And 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 and let them know my track record also. As mayor, every year I was in office I did reduce taxes. …
Now, as for John McCain’s adherence to rules and regulations and pushing for even harder and tougher regulations, that is another thing that he is known for though. Look at the tobacco industry. Look at campaign finance reform.
IFILL: OK, our time is up here. We’ve got to move to the next question.
At least Palin is coherent throughout this segment of the debate. Why is she coherent? Because she has mastered her talking points and she refuses to budge from them.
Throughout the debate, Palin referred to a set of cue cards, to make sure she was repeating the lines she had been given. Never mind that Joe Biden is crucifying John McCain on the topic of deregulation; Palin doesn’t have a cue card on that topic. “Wait, I have a cue card on tax cuts; let’s talk about that instead!”
By any objective measure, that was a brutal exchange. Palin failed to mount a defense of McCain’s position. The floor was wide open for Biden to get his message out.
And the topic is absolutely crucial. The number one issue on voters’ minds is the economic crisis; arguably, the economic crisis is attributable to deregulation.
(Or deregulation is attributable to the economic crisis, as Palin might say.)
Next up, consider health care. Biden levelled a devastating critique at McCain’s health care proposals, ending with this statement:
You’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the “Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”
At that point, Ifill changed to a different topic. But no experienced debater would let Biden have the last word, particularly when his last phrase was a direct shot at Governor Palin. Palin had to make an opportunity to rebut Biden’s statement.
But did she? No. That’s a great result for the Obama campaign, which has now made health care the focus of its next series of advertisements.
Oddly enough, Palin did a better job on foreign policy than domestic policy. I’m surprised by that but, reading the transcript, I see that she tenaciously defended her ground on Iraq and Afghanistan (although I think Biden’s arguments were superior).
This post is already far too long, but let me conclude by addressing one more topic. Palin said, just a few months ago, that she had no idea what the Vice President does each day. Oops! How embarrassing in the context of the current campaign!
Palin might have expected a question on that topic; she ought to have been prepared for it. So why was Biden’s answer so much stronger than Palin’s?
IFILL: Governor, you said in July that someone would have to explain to you exactly what it is the vice president does every day. You, senator, said you would not be vice president under any circumstances. Now maybe this was just what was going on at the time. But tell us now, looking forward, what it is you think the vice presidency is worth now.
PALIN: … Of course, we know what a vice president does. And that’s not only to preside over the Senate and will take that position very seriously also. I’m thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president’s policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are. John McCain and I have had good conversations about where I would lead with his agenda. That is energy independence in America and reform of government over all, and then working with families of children with special needs. That’s near and dear to my heart also. In those arenas, John McCain has already tapped me and said, that’s where I want you, I want you to lead. I said, I can’t wait to get and there go to work with you.
BIDEN: … Let me tell you what Barack asked me to do. I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. John McCain would acknowledge that. My record shows that on controversial issues.
I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he’ll be making, I’ll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He’s president, not me, I’ll give my best advice.
And one of the things he said early on when he was choosing, he said he picked someone who had an independent judgment and wouldn’t be afraid to tell him if he disagreed. That is sort of my reputation, as you know. I look forward to working with Barack and playing a very constructive role in his presidency, bringing about the kind of change this country needs.
Palin must have known she missed the mark, because she threw out this information a little later:
And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.
Here’s an analogy for you. If a big-league hitter knows what pitch you’re about to throw, he’s capable of hitting it out of the park. If he knows what pitch is coming and he can’t hit it out of the park, he’s not a big-leagues calibre hitter.
Palin had to know that this question was coming, but she produced a swing and a miss.
Viewers were not distracted by Palin’s folksy, feisty persona. Here’s how they scored the debate:
CNN: Biden 51 – Palin 36
CBS: Biden 46 – Palin 21
FOX: Biden 61 – Palin 39
Et tu, FOX?!