If both vice presidential candidates fell into comas or some other sensory deprivation situation for the next two months and emerged to meet again, facing the same questions as they faced at Thursday’s debate in St. Louis, it is very likely we would see the same Joe Biden. The Delaware senator’s facile discussion of issues and world players, economic numbers and history, rose from a deep well of experience and a public career marked by curiosity.
For her part, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin – speaking with the programmed cadence of a GPS navigation system — used forced folksiness to deliver crammed material in the manner of a high schooler looking to score a good grade on a Spanish test. The kid may escape with a B-minus, but he wouldn’t be able to order a cup of coffee in Spain a week later.
The most revealing exchange of the debate came when moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS asked Palin, the Alaska governor, to respond to Biden’s contention that the Bush Administration’s policy in the Middle East has been ineffective.
So is it, governor?
“No, but I’m so encouraged we both love Israel,” Palin said.
This after Biden offered a thorough, fact-filled commentary on the recent history of the players in the region.
With weird winks and homespunisms, Palin worked in several “you betchas” and “darn rights” and even a “shout out” to family in an effort to appeal to just folks.
As a small-town Iowan I didn’t find it genuine at all. She actually talked down to us, figuring that references to hockey moms and the hacknayed phrase “Joe Six Pack” and her self-application of the word “maverick” would hold more sway than a discussion of the issues. Details do matter — something the last two weeks and the current two wars have shown Americans.
On energy policy, one of the more important issues in Iowa, Palin could not explain GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s repeated votes against wind power, ethanol, and the renewable energy that have been so vital to the economy around here. She didn’t even give it the old college try.
Instead, as her party’s chief cheerleader, Palin corrected Biden on the — err… — cheer. It’s not “drill, drill, drill” but “drill, baby, drill,” Palin noted gleefully.
If you’re in the mood to buy it, her argument was essentially this: I’m more like you, and you can trust John McCain more than the other guy. Just go with me on it, she suggests.
Another remarkable part of the debate focused on the genocide in Darfur:
Biden: I don’t have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur. We can now impose a no-fly zone. It’s within our capacity. We can lead NATO if we’re willing to take a hard stand. We can, I’ve been in those camps in Chad. I’ve seen the suffering, thousands and tens of thousands have died and are dying. We should rally the world to act and demonstrate it by our own movement to provide the helicopters to get the 21,000 forces of the African Union in there now to stop this genocide.
Palin: But as for as Darfur, we can agree on that also, the supported of the no-fly zone, making sure that all options are on the table there also. America is in a position to help. What I’ve done in my position to help, as the governor of a state that’s pretty rich in natural resources, we have a $40 billion investment fund, a savings fund called the Alaska Permanent Fund.When I and others in the legislature found out we had some millions of dollars in Sudan, we called for divestment through legislation of those dollars to make sure we weren’t doing anything that would be seen as condoning the activities there in Darfur.
When asked to name a policy issues on which each candidate had to change course to deal with evolving circumstances, Biden presented a detailed explanation of how he began factoring in ideology with judicial appointments — serious business.
Palin’s best shot was to suggest that maybe, just maybe, she shouldn’t have “quasi-caved” on a budget for the City of Wasilla, Alaska, where she was mayor until just recently.
Both candidates knew their roles were largely as surrogates and went after the opposing party’s presidential candidate. Palin used cliched lines, arguing, for example, that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama would wave a white flag in Iraq. At one point, she said, “You walk the walk, you don’t just talk the talk,” but she lacked the requisite depth of knowledge to engage in the sort of exchange that would make such claims stick.
GOP handlers prepped Palin well enough for the initial questions of the night, but the Alaska governor was at a canyon-sized disadvantage when it came to follow-ups. She let Biden get in shot after shot in what was a strategy to line team McCain with the Bush dynasty.
Biden: Look, the maverick — let’s talk about the maverick John McCain is. And, again, I love him. He’s been a maverick on some issues, but he has been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives.
He voted four out of five times for George Bush’s budget, which put us a half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt since he’s got there.
He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people. He has voted against — he voted including another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care plan, when he voted in the United States Senate.
He’s not been a maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college.
He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table.
Can we send — can we get Mom’s MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can’t — we can’t make it. How are we going to heat the — heat the house this winter?
He voted against even providing for what they call LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the roof in the winter.
So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.
Palin let that go unanswered because she was obviously not fast enough on her feet. And you can’t blame Ifill for it, because Palin made a point of saying she was going to talk about what she wanted, not what Ifill or Biden were talking about.
While that media-bashing may work with the already-locked-in base, viewers with a fundamental sense of fairness saw the Alaska governor trying play outside of the rules in a debate in which Biden was civil — perhaps too much so. And which of Ifill’s questions in this debate were unfair “gotcha” questions, anyway?
Biden also seized on an opportunity to remind people of the power Dick Cheney has wielded as vice president. He said he thinks the VP’s office has had too much power, and he cast his would-be role in an Obama administration as largely advisory. Palin clearly wants Cheney-like powers. Something to think about.
Remarkably, Biden, thought to be the coldblooded product of two many years in the U.S. Senate, had the most genuine moment of humanity in the debate when he briefly choked up about car accident three decades ago that claimed his first wife and a daughter and left his sons injured.
“The notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand,” Biden said.