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Friday, October 3, 2008

Beyond Debate

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2008 at 8:00 AM

I'm a geek, so perhaps it's no surprise that for me, the high point of last night's vice-presidential debate came during an exchange over a highly technical point about the bankruptcy code. But bear with me, because while everyone is crediting Sarah Palin with, I guess, not breaking down onstage, this moment shows just how badly Joe Biden hammered her on actual substance.

The moment came when Biden was talking about a proposed homeowner-friendly change to the bankruptcy code:

Biden: That would keep people in their homes, actually help banks by keeping it from going under. But John McCain, as I understand it -- I'm not sure of this, but I believe John McCain and the governor don't support that.

There are ways to help people [that] are not being supported by -- by the Bush administration nor do I believe by John McCain and Gov. Palin.

Moderator Gwen Ifill: Gov. Palin, is that so?

Palin: That is not so, but because that's just a quick answer, I want to talk about, again, my record on energy versus your ticket's energy ticket, also.

I think that this is important to come back to, with that energy policy plan again that was voted for in '05. When we talk about energy, we have to consider the need to do all that we can to allow this nation to become energy independent. It's a nonsensical position …

It certainly is.

Here's what I think happened there. I think Biden set Palin up by pretending not to know what McCain's position was on a policy issue. And he did this because he knew that Palin didn't know McCain's position on the issue. And he figured there was a good chance for Palin to flub it.

Palin didn't flub it, but only because she simply changed the subject to something she wanted to talk about. This happened over and over again, as every conscious human being watching the debate-- even some of the pundits --  must have noticed. At one point, Palin tried to turn this into a virtue:

I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.

Which, roughly translated, means, "For all intents and purposes, I'm going to dodge any question I either don't want to answer or am incapable of answering." Here, we see Palin trying to pretend that refusing to answer a question is a form of "straight talk."

None of these tactics are surprising. It's well documented that Palin comes from the Newt Gingrich school of debating: If you don't like the question you're asked, mutter a few words that sound responsive, and then answer a question you like better.

But what was surprising is that most of the pundits I saw on the major networks let her get away with it. In fact, they praised her for refusing to observe the basic principle of any debate, which is that you answer the question put to you. Katie Couric of CBS, for example, credited Palin for being a good debater -- not despite but because Palin sidestepped questions.

Palin clearly benefited from the soft bigotry of diminished expectations, at least as far as the commentariat was concerned. But instant polling by Couric's own network -- as well as by CNN -- showed that by double-digit margins, voters thought Biden won the debate. Most commentators I saw, by contrast, called it a draw, or at best suggested that while Biden's answers were more substantive, Palin "won by not losing."

They were, in other words, given Palin for looking poised, for not getting flustered. Palin essentially said, "I'm not answering your questions. I'm just going to talk about whatever I want." The response from most commenters I saw was "Attagirl!" But if you think about it, that's not just an insult to the moderator; it's an insult to the entire premise of a political debate ... and really, of politics itself.

Of course, Palin tests as more "likeable" than Biden, no doubt due to her folksy one-of-us appeal. (Which I found increasingly grating as the night went on. But then hey, I'm one of those liberal snobs you hear about.) And her performance was poised -- if by "poised" you mean "utterly shameless about simply refusing to engage the issues at hand." But at bottom, her talking-points driven responses made a mockery of the whole idea of a political debate. Just as McCain's selection of her made a mockery of his nostrums about experience.

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