The vice-presidential debate was not quite as exciting as it billing. Overall, both candidates did what they had to do, their performances confirmed what we knew about them, and the lack of any major blunders means the night will pass quickly from public consciousness.
The expectations of high drama were those that attend an execution. All this past week, Americans were treated to Gov. Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric. Palin’s performance was dreadful; some of her replies were so unintelligible, you wondered if she was speaking in tongues. The confidant, sharp, attacking woman who had mesmerized the nation with her convention speech in St. Paul disappeared, replaced but an uninformed, deer-in-the-headlight, rube. Conservative columnists were questioning whether she should step aside.
Last night, Gov. Palin stopped the bleeding. She was able to answer all the questions or, as she herself said, answer the questions she wanted to answer. I think a candidate, especially a first-time national candidate, gets points when they assert themselves against the moderator and their opponent as Palin did. Her answers tended to be a bit sophomoric: some had details, some had broad strokes, but no answer demonstrated the ability to connect the details to the overarching philosophy of the candidates.
I thought her "aw shucks" demeanor would strike a chord with middle America especially in contrast to Sen. Joe Biden’s more senatorial bearing. My debate-watching partner disagreed: He thought of the debate as an interview or a professional presentation in which homey analogies would never be used. Evidently, he was right and I was wrong. The polls immediately after the debate showed Americans scoring the debate for Biden by 51-39 percent, even though 70 percent said Biden looked like a more typical politician.
Biden did what he had to do, and what may have been very difficult for him. His job was to not make news. The Democrats have benefitted from the renewed focus on the economy in the past two weeks and they did not want any story line to take away from that focus. The big political news yesterday was the McCain campaign’s decision to pull out of Michigan and the big news today is the vote in the House of Representatives on the revised Bailout package. Those are both good story lines, with longer legs, than a good debate performance by the undercard.
Both Palin and Biden will spend much of this last month of the campaign in small towns in swing states. Both are extremely likable people who will do well. Both will be used to whip up the base as well. Palin redeemed her political career last night if not her chances at becoming vice-president. The McCain camp still needs a game-changer and it is difficult to see where or what that could be.
Michael Sean Winters