By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-3-08
The Vice Presidential debate proved to be better than the battle of the boobs many reporters led Americans to expect. Voter interest soared partially because Sarah Palin is a fresh and intriguing personality and partially because she had stumbled so badly in recent interviews. When she hemmed and hawed before ABC’s Charles Gibson, supporters could counterattack that Gibson had been condescending. But CBS’s Kaite Couric gently lobbed one softball question after another at the Alaska Governor, and Palin had muffed them repeatedly, embarrassingly. The debate ratings improved also because of what we might term the Jon Stewart effect – many people wanted to watch the event live so they could get the jokes about it later, in this case the inevitable Tina Fey imitation of Palin on “Saturday Night Live.”
Joe Biden was also being set up for a fall. Various newspapers had run stories about Biden the bloviator, Washington’s gaffe-master general. Biden, we were told, was practicing debating with female stand-ins for Palin to help avoid appearing condescending. Still, the real threat to Biden was some ramble, some embarrassing mangle of something very simple, or some Freudian slip wherein what he said was the opposite of what he intended – or should have intended – to say.
With the bar set so low, both candidates performed admirably. Palin was coherent throughout. As in her Republican National Convention speech, she showed an impressive ability to appeal directly to voters, to keep the common touch. She used her smile to great effect, sometimes to endear, sometimes to blunt the dagger she was thrusting toward Biden’s heart. Perhaps most surprisingly, she gave a remarkably nuanced answer to a question about gay marriage, saying she welcomed diversity of lifestyles in her own family and among her fellow citizens, but still defined marriage as between a man and woman.
Biden was disciplined throughout, on message and aggressive, but not bullying. Palin was probably stronger the first half, with Biden occasionally flashing a forced, seemingly haughty smile and looking too much the senatorial peacock. In the second half, Biden let loose a series of smooth, hard-hitting riffs against McCain that tagged the Republican candidate as George W. Bush the second and wrong on the war, the economy, the environment and energy. By then, also, Palin was beginning to sound like a broken record, and her smiles were wearing thin.
In fact, if reporters did not have us conditioned to approach this debate like drama critics, or horse handicappers, we all would agree that both candidates disappointed. Neither one had a compelling, creative, or even interesting diagnosis or prescription regarding the financial crisis. Both major party presidential tickets continue to miss the leadership opportunity to address the Wall Street crisis thoughtfully, creatively, substantively. Instead we see finger-pointing at the other party, and predictable attacks on the greed and corruption of Wall Street.
While Biden did not break new ground intellectually in defending his running mate Barack Obama and attacking John McCain, Palin in particular demonstrated the exhaustion of Republican ideology. Twice she sounded like a kinder, gentler, version of Ronald Reagan, echoing his lines that government cannot be the solution to every problem, and saluting the United States as a shining city upon the hill. But 28 years after Reagan won the presidency, Republicans themselves need to push the analysis beyond viewing tax cuts as the answer to every economic challenge and defense build ups as the answer to every foreign policy threat. Palin’s limited and repetitive riffs reinforce the need for the Republicans to redefine and reinvigorate their vision, whether they win or lose.
Both candidates also failed to answer important questions. The moderator Gwen Ifill asked an excellent question about what expenditure the nominee intended to cut out now that the bailout was proving so expensive. When both candidates sidestepped the question, one of the McGill students watching the debate with me sighed. “This is why my generation is so turned off to politics,” she explained. “Politicians don’t answer direct questions, so we get cynical about the game and lose interest.”
My student was correct. While both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin demonstrated considerable talent, they both failed to articulate a compelling new vision that fits these difficult times. That their performances are nevertheless attracting such praise reveals how low our expectations have become for all our politicians, whether they are rookies on the national stage or 35-year Senate veterans.