Last Thursday evening, I watched the vice presidential debate between Sen. Biden and Gov. Palin. Because of an earlier commitment, I had to leave town the next morning, and I have been in virtual seclusion ever since. I have not seen any commentary or spin from the various camps, nor do I know whether there is an emerging consensus of whether one side or the other exceeded or fell short of whatever artificial expectations they had managed to create in advance of the debate. I have seen enough headlines to know that Gov. Palin is still on the Republican ticket (which in itself is rather remarkable at this point). Other than that, however, I am -- even at this late date -- as untainted by publicity as any jury pool could be.
In my comments last week about the first presidential debate, I noted that my experience as a debater and debate coach/advisor (totaling 18 years) generally has been a disadvantage in watching political debates in the U.S. Such debates tend to involve little actual clash of arguments, and the assessment of winners and losers is determined by who had the best zinger or one-liner. The pleasant surprise coming out of the McCain/Obama debate, therefore, was that it was possible to assess it as a real debate. Seen in that way, it was obvious that Sen. Obama is an extremely able debater and that Sen. McCain is not; but McCain's form of non-argument has the tendency to muddy the waters and make it unnecessarily difficult to see just how badly he is losing on the merits. While McCain's performance would still be a D+ on an academic grading scale (which is not how debates are generally graded, but I'll use the letter grading system here because of its familiarity to most readers), his refusal or inability actually to debate had the effect of lowering Obama's grade to a B+. Still a clear-cut win, but hardly reflective of the apparent underlying differences.
While I had immediately recognized Obama's situation as one where a superior debater was struggling with how to respond to an inferior opponent, Biden/Palin was immediately recognizable as something similar but with a crucial difference: a superior debater who was unaffected by his opponent's inability to make a coherent argument. Biden thus showed how to beat an outmatched opponent without being dragged down in the process. I would, in fact, say that Biden's performance in this debate was one of the best debating performances that I've ever seen outside of a championship debate round. Only a few small demerits (repeating a claim about Exxon's taxes too many times, for example) moved him from an A+ to an A, notwithstanding Palin's solid D. (Failing grades are reserved for people who cannot even speak for their allotted time or who melt down on the spot.)
The general pattern of the debate was set early. Palin would make a broad assertion, Biden would respond on point, and Palin would either repeat what she had originally said or change the subject. (Indeed, on at least one occasion, she changed the subject immediately upon hearing the question from the moderator.) Biden displayed a broad and deep knowledge of public policy, and he was clearly prepared to answer specific assertions that he had anticipated Palin making. Each time she talked about some vote or statement that Biden or Obama had made in the past, Biden had an answer that was directly responsive. I don't know if others watching the debate found this type of exchange compelling, but I was riveted. Biden seemed to be prepared for every argument, and Palin quickly lapsed into home-spun generalities as she ignored her opponent's arguments.
It did not help Palin's case that her prepared comments seemed to have been written without concern for whether they contradicted each other. Thus, she simultaneously managed to decry the lack of "oversight" of the financial markets -- asserting quite energetically that the subprime mortgage mess had been caused by predatory lending -- while repeatedly asserting that it would be bad to have the government try to solve problems. (She even paraphrased, in garbled form, Ronald Reagan's famous government-is-not-the-solution-to-the-problem-government-is-the-problem mantra: "Patriotic is saying, government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper.")
One particularly interesting exchange occurred when Gov. Palin made a now-familiar assertion about the number of times that Sen. Obama has "voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction." Her claim was that Obama had cast such a vote 94 times. Biden's response was devastating in two ways. First, he pointed out that Palin's method of counting votes would show McCain as having "raised taxes" 477 times. Second, and much more importantly, he refused to fight on her turf, stating quite correctly that "it's a bogus standard." I have also argued in the past that this whole "didn't vote to cut taxes" concept is nonsense; so it was especially nice to see Biden refuse to accept the premise of Palin's too-familiar claim.
Another highly effective argument from Sen. Biden was in response to what was almost surely an unanticipated, bizarre argument from Gov. Palin. Unsurprisingly, one of Biden's broad strategies in the debate involved tying the McCain/Palin ticket to the leader of their party, George W. Bush. Also unsurprisingly, Palin wanted to distance herself from an extremely unpopular president. Yet I cannot imagine that Biden could have expected Palin to say that Biden and Obama were engaging in "just too much finger-pointing backwards to ever make us believe that that's where you're going" (referring to the future). Apparently, Palin's argument was that the past is irrelevant.
Whether I'm right or wrong that this took Biden by surprise, though, his response was again doubly effective. He started by saying that "past is prologue." Just as I was thinking to myself, "Hmm, that's a bit too indirect to score points," Biden then launched into one of his most effective arguments in the debate, listing quickly all of the ways in which McCain's policies (in this case, foreign policy positions) were the same as Bush's. For someone with the reputation of being long-winded, moreover, it was especially surprising to see how quickly Biden was able to deliver such a devastating response.
Palin was, however, unaffected by the failure of her argument. She even tried to return to it with her least effective scripted line: "Say it ain't so, Joe." (It was at that moment that it became clear why Palin had been heard on a live microphone at the beginning of the debate asking Sen. Biden if she could call him Joe.) She followed that non-starter with this: "[T]here you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead . . ." The commentary just writes itself.
Finally, one of the most difficult tasks that Sen. Biden faced was the choice of when to respond as opposed to when to pass up opportunities to respond to Gov. Palin's assertions. At one point, he used the familiar but always effective "I don't know where to start." The most interesting choice that he had to make, though, was whether to respond to Gov. Palin's repeated claims that she and Sen. McCain are "mavericks." This is the kind of non-specific claim that made the Obama/McCain debate so difficult for Obama, and Biden shrewdly let those claims slide. At some point, however, even a meaningless claim has to be refuted; and when Biden did finally respond, he had one of his best moments of the debate. He quickly listed five issues -- the budget, health care, education, the Iraq war, and (the one small-bore issue) assistance to low-income citizens to pay winter heating bills -- on which McCain "has been no maverick." Biden thus took what had clearly been one of Palin's safety nets (using the word six times in her remarks), gave it content, and then used it to score a very important point.
Again, at this point I do not know how the expectations game has played out in the vice presidential debate. I do know that, no matter what one's expectations were, Sarah Palin's performance as a debater was simply terrible while Joe Biden's was extremely effective. I wish I could see the Senator debate again, even if he again had to do so without any real opposition.
[Through October 15, I am cross-posting on the Concurring Opinions blog.]
-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan