Going into last night’s vice presidential debate, Big Media had molded the very negative narrative that John McCain had committed a fundamental mistake by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. Her recent interviews, they said, proved that she was not ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. That narrative even had some media commentators predicting that a bad performance in the debate could be a “death blow” for the entire McCain presidential campaign.
But last night Sarah Palin reminded us why so many Americans are galvanized by her candidacy. In fact, she blew last night’s debate out of the water. She knew her facts, talked about her experiences as an executive and as reformer while keeping the focus on the top of the ticket. Things went so well that by night’s end even Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, had to admit, “I think she did very well tonight.”
Foreign policy was supposed to be the area in which Palin was most vulnerable. But Palin was more than confident in criticizing Obama’s pledge to meet as president with rogue foreign leaders without preconditions. And while foreign affairs is supposed to be Senator Joe Biden’s strong suit, it was Palin who had most of the memorable lines. She deftly pointed out what a critic Biden had been of Obama’s foreign policy before the Delaware senator had been chosen as Obama’s number two. And she added this memorable line about the Obama-Biden timeline for withdrawal in Iraq:
“Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that’s for sure. And it’s not what our nation needs to be able to count on. You guys opposed the surge. The surge worked. Barack Obama still can’t admit the surge works.”
In one of the better questions of the night, moderator Gwen Ifill asked each candidate how, in the event that they became president, their administration would differ from their running mate’s. While Biden said he would simply carryout Obama’s policies, Palin showed refreshing candor in admitting that while she has some differences with John McCain, including on drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (she supports) still she respects McCain for never asking her to check her opinions at the door.
There was one missed opportunity for Palin. Both candidates said they and their running mates oppose same-sex nuptials. It would have been an ideal time for Palin to challenge Biden on Obama’s suggestion that those who wish to pass laws to ensure that marriage remains the union of one man and one woman are bigots, as well as to challenge Obama’s opposition to allowing Californians to decide for themselves what the definition of marriage should be in their state and to inquire as to why Obama supports repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, an step that would force states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
I was disappointed that Ifill neglected to raise one of the most fundamental issues of whether unborn children are part of the human family and deserve equal protection. I hope she didn’t overlook abortion because she knows Biden and Obama have been having real problems with their extreme pro-abortion views.
Perhaps the most memorable line of the night came in response to Biden’s constant attempts to link McCain and Palin to the Bush administration. (I counted Biden referencing Bush, Cheney and their administration nearly two dozen times.) Following one particularly scathing rebuke from Biden, Palin answered:
“Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You referenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.”
Immediately following the debate, I wondered whether my favorable take on Palin’s performance was only wishful thinking on my part. But I quickly found otherwise. Pollster Frank Luntz polled an audience of “undecideds” who had watched the debate, and they were nearly unanimous in their belief that Palin had won. Asked why they thought she had bested Biden, most of them cited Palin’s ability to speak directly to them and their concerns.
As she has done throughout the campaign, Palin connected with ordinary Americans last night. She spoke to the average American family about their concerns, about the economy, education, military and energy, and the frustration of average Americans with a government that too often gets in their way. As she said at one point in the debate, her strength on the ticket is “my connection to the heartland of America, being a mom, having a son going off to war, a mother of a special needs child.”
Billed as perhaps the first ever vice presidential debate that could matter on Election Day, Palin’s task last night was to re-introduce herself to America. After weeks of criticism in the mainstream media, the American people were reminded why they liked Palin so much in the first place. It was a tremendous performance.