Sarah Palin didn’t hit a home run in last night’s debate: call it a line-drive double into right field. Her high-energy down-home mannerism enabled her to connect with voters directly, just as she had to do.
In the past week, the vice presidential debate was shaping up to be a turning point in the election. Because this race is so odd and so close — the first time in more than half a century that no incumbent president or vice president is running, one ticket having a black gentleman and the other a woman — the usually inconsequential vice presidential debate could have had unusual weight.
Independent voters who decide elections were looking for a watershed event. They didn’t get one.
McCain’s decision yesterday to abandon Michigan seemed to prove he was in an unrecoverable downward spiral. If Palin had done badly, he would have been. She did better than many had expected, pushing the presidential candidates back up to the decisive role they always have played.
Palin showed a friendly aggressiveness. Before the debate began, Palin took advantage of the open microphones, asking Biden if she could call him “Joe”. She didn’t do that in the debate, but she — not Biden — set the friendly tone for the whole evening.
Whatever tests people had in mind for her, she seemed to pass. And she battled Biden to a draw because she won on one overriding point: Palin is not a Washington insider. There is so much anger across America that our government is failing to do its job on too many fronts. Palin’s personality and record play well in this environment.
When Palin says that she will come to Washington to change it, she strikes a chord with everyone — Democrat and Republican alike — who feels that the force to change the way we are governed has to come from outside the Beltway.
Joe Biden didn’t play into the “angry Joe” character we saw in the primary debates. He was poised, colloquial and substantive. He refused to be baited and showed real emotion when speaking of his family tragedy. And, disappointing us all, Biden didn’t emit a single gaffe. He even didn’t engage in one of his characteristic filibusters.
Palin spoke — four or five times — about how she and McCain would fight “greed and corruption on Wall Street.” But she didn’t say how.
When asked what parts of the McCain agenda would have to be taken off the table to pay for the Wall Street bailout, she said there was nothing that would be delayed or denied.
Biden then missed the biggest opportunity of the evening. In the first McCain-Obama debate, Sen. Obama — in answer to the same question — laid out his agenda for more spending, not less. Biden didn’t correct that. Instead, he talked about a windfall profits tax on energy companies, triggering one of Palin’s best moments.
Palin is much more expert than Biden on the energy issue, governing perhaps the most energy-rich state. She spoke convincingly about how she had driven the energy companies to build the largest infrastructure project in the nation, the new natural gas pipeline. She also was forceful on how energy independence is a key to America’s future and attacked Obama and Biden convincingly for their opposition to energy development.
Reminded by Palin of his comment that offshore drilling was “raping” the outer continental shelf, Biden could only retreat into a smile. (Palin even kidded that she’ll try to change McCain’s opinion on drilling in the Alaska Natural Wildlife Refuge, “ANWR.”)
Sarah Palin grew in stature a bit at Biden’s expense. When she attacked the Democrats on their redistributionist economic policy, Biden talked about “fairness” and “kitchen table issues,” feeding the fire Palin had started. She hammered Biden on Obama’s plan for another $800 billion in spending, echoing Ronald Reagan’s thought that government was the problem, not the solution.
Biden’s argument against McCain’s healthcare plan was convincing, saying that the $5,000 family healthcare tax credit would be more than offset by McCain’s idea of making health benefits taxable, throwing 20 million people into the ranks of the uninsured. Biden said, “I call that the ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”
And Biden scored heavily on the war. Palin had a very bad moment when speaking about the war in Afghanistan. Riding McCain’s devotion to the Iraq surge, Palin said that the surge principles that worked in Iraq would work in Afghanistan too.
Biden countered with the statement Thursday by Gen. David McKiernan, NATO commander in Afghanistan, who said that what worked in Iraq wouldn’t work in Afghanistan. “There is no magic number of soldiers that are needed on the ground to win this campaign," McKiernan said. "What we need is security of the people. We need governance. We need reconstruction and development."
Palin was stuck on the surge, saying the Obama-Biden plan for Iraq is a “white flag of surrender.” But when both were asked about their plan to end the war, Palin fell back into the muddle of Bush’s definition of victory, saying we’d withdraw when Iraq could govern itself and defend itself. Biden insisted on the plan for withdrawal within sixteen months.
Biden won the point, albeit on the Democrats’ wrong-headed strategy of a phased withdrawal without regard for the facts on the ground.
Palin recovered quickly and did best on economic and social issues. She said, perhaps too often, that the McCain-Palin ticket will deal with “greed and corruption” on Wall Street.
Palin had too little of substance to say on too many issues, even about McCain’s role as a maverick. Biden belittled that idea, citing votes and positions that McCain had taken that tie him closely to President Bush. She tried to shrug off Biden’s attack on McCain’s “maverick” record, repeatedly accusing Biden of looking backward, even trying the great Reagan line against Carter, saying “there you go again.” It was too scripted, and fell flat.
Voters may decide the effect of this debate on altogether different grounds than we pundits have. If voters want details and insider knowledge, they will think Biden won. If voters want someone whose enthusiasm and judgment aren’t tainted by decades of Washington insider dealing, they’ll give the win to Sarah Palin.