after action report: the biden/ifill debate

Like many of you I spent some time last night watching the debate between Joe Biden and Gwen Ifill Sarah Palin. Also like many of you, I have been seeing a variety of punditry on it this morning, most of which remarks on how Palin managed to exceed expectations while Biden still did a good job. These achievements were, respectively, nothing special and very impressive. In the case on Palin, given her performance in other settings, I think that “exceeding expectations” really just meant that she didn’t fall down. I mean, really, watch the following clip and tell me she doesn’t remind you of that kid who really likes eating paste… you know, in high school:

Joe Biden, on the other hand, had the difficult task of trying to smack some sense into the Republicans while not giving the impression that he was smacking Sarah Palin around. Because, you know, she’s a girl and girls can’t take it. Riiiiiight. Sure they can’t. Still, Biden managed this goal with supreme aplomb- tearing into John McCain with dignity and respect.

So am I here to just repeat what the pundits are saying? Nah, not really, but I did want to ask y’all for your opinions on the debate. Particularly, I’m wondering a couple of things.

First, initially in the debate Palin seemed to be going for folksy charm and meaningless platitudes. Biden, on the other hand, came out of the gate aggressively arguing about policy. For a while there Palin stuck to strategy, then looked cross, and then started making fairly direct and- I thought- insulting remarks about Biden and Obama. In other words, I think there was a distinct change-up in her strategy from folksy reassurance to an effort to bait Biden into making a mistake. It didn’t work but, to me, it came across as: “Crap, this isn’t working, time to go with the other strategy they taught me.”

Second, we really got to see two Sarah Palin’s last night. One Palin was calm, collected, and had direct talking points with distinct taglines. The other Sarah Palin was a confusing, nonsensical wreck. Oddly, the latter seemed to be present at the beginning and end of her comments when she was struggling to dance around the real question and the former Palin came out once she had wrenched the subject around to something else. So, basically, it felt like the campaign staffers just gave her a series of set-piece talking points and told her to get onto them as fast as possible no matter what happened.

In short, I think Biden did extremely well and Palin only held her own by comparison to what many of us knew might happen instead.

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “after action report: the biden/ifill debate”

  1. Hey, she’s only been at this for, what, five weeks? Give her a break, man!

    I agree with your two points. She started out trying for the folksy tagline angle, and Biden forced her to play on his terms. She spent much of the debate on her heels and resorted to the mean and nasty. She wasn’t even subtle with the attacks on Obama’s patriotism.

    But she didn’t spin around the stage making ooga-booga sounds and demanding “witches, OUT!” so she won.


  2. I really loathe this “folksy” thing. I wish someone would help me to understand what it means–specifically, why it is viewed as a desirable affect/quality by some voters–without resorting to explanations like the “stupidity of most voters” (because I can tell you now I won’t find variants of that explanation convincing).

    Also, I’m pretty confused about why we’re stalling out on civil rights for same sex couples. Maybe Tina can do a thumbnail for me on why the two parties have agreed to hold steady on this issue.

    Missing bits: Education, Supreme Court, Policing esp. GitMo/Secret Prisons stuff.

    Surprising bit: discussion of Cheney’s re-definition of the role of VP as a legislative position. I don’t think Gov. Palin really understood that question, although she begged for it in an earlier answer.


  3. @4: That is so funny that you ask about same-sex couples, because I was struck by how different this year’s discussion of the issue was from four years ago!

    While you are right that the policy position has not moved much for either party, the strength of the language used to discuss the issue, IMHO, has increased greatly. When John Kerry was asked this issue four years ago, he was so mealy mouthed and apologetic about being for civil unions and against marriage. This time, Biden was very clear and forceful in articulating a position in favor equal rights to same-sex couples, and even Palin felt she had to speak about tolerance and congratulate herself for having a gay friend whom she doesn’t judge, coming out in support of nondiscriminatory hospital policies, etc.

    For those of us who favor same-sex marriage and see that as an equal right, this middle ground is insufficient, but given where we’ve come from in terms of public opinion, I think this is a fairly substantial move forward toward this end. In other words and “equal rights for same-sex couples” kind of thinking will lead to this policy goal in the long run.


  4. I agree with the common assessment: Palin succeeded by not failing. As a former debater, though, I was absolutely blown away with Biden’s performance. He was incredible, and showed his experience as a trial lawyer.

    I’m guessing that I’m in the minority here, but I walked away from the debate feeling like Biden should be president. He simply oozed experience, confidence, integrity, and every other quality I could wish for in a candidate. I’m a big Obama fan, but he was a bit shaky in the debate, and to be honest, Biden put him to shame.

    Just my $.02, and I think it’s fair to say that I’m an outlier!


  5. I half-watched the debate while recovering from the two glasses of wine I had at the reception for the governor and running tables on my laptop (part of my 24-hour all-night marathon to get new graphs for the talk I’m giving to the judges about an hour from now) so my impressions are a little hazy, but I basically thought Biden did a great job and Palin had periods of lucidity. I think I agree with someone who commented that she just refused to answer the questions she didn’t know anything about, came back to what she did know. I also was struck by her “civil union” comments. The interaction between the two of them was much warmer and more human on both sides than the previous week; I think it was a two-way street, and both had something to gain from being friendly.

    The interesting thing I noticed on CNN where they have the little meter for the 30 people in Ohio, is that pretty consistently the women liked Biden better and the men liked Palin better. There were only a few marked exceptions that I noticed.


  6. My impressions roughly mirrored OWs, though I also thought Palin did much worse than the rest of you (barring a few instances of “lucidity”). I was wowed by Biden but mostly amazed at how Palin would turn a question about mortgages into a discussion of energy policy. (I can’t believe she didn’t jumped on the Dems for housing policy in the Clinton era.) She kept going back to platitudes about energy policy in really bizarre ways and I was impressed with Biden’s ability to hold himself in check — the part that frosts me is that if Palin were a guy, Biden would have been all over her. (I’m also struck that Katie Couric is the first journalist to really expose her lack of knowledge and she was probably chosen because people thought Couric was soft.)

    I also watched it on CNN and didn’t see more than two instances where women liked Palin better than men.


  7. To Jenn @4

    Doncha think that just havin’ a plain ol’ mom with good ol’-fashioned commonsense in ofice is the best way to run the government? We’re in this big economic mess right now, but if we can just get rid of the people who’ve been in Washington for so long, except for mavericks like John McCain, and get some more new people in there, well, gosh, I betcha those mavericks will fix up this economy in no time. ‘Cuz those mavericks, they’re not interested in politics or winnin’ elections the way politicans are, they’re just interested in what’s good for our country. Jeez, I don’t know why you guys can’t see that.


  8. diminished expectations are the classic Rovian sleight of hand (as you noticed they spent a good week indicating that THEY [republicans] held those low expectations as well)


  9. i still can’t talk about it. i was so angry listening to palin that i had to go bed for fear i would put my fist through our newly wall mounted television. And i’m not prone to violence or anger.

    besides robot palin’s non-answers, what bothered me the most was the format of the debate. palin could say anything, even “i’m not going to answer your questions” and ifill did nothing to make her stay on issue or actually answer the question. the lack of follow up severely disturbed me.

    Biden did great. If he had been like that in the primaries he could have easily made it a three way race on the democratic ticket. but it makes me feel a lot better about the obama/biden ticket. at the same time it makes me even more frustrated with many americans that they could support mccain/palin.

    america owes it to the world to elect competent leaders. we have experienced incompetence and disregard for the rest of the world for the past eight years.


  10. @13: Dave, your comments landed in the spam queue. It’s a mystery which comments fall there, but I despammed you in the event that blogs can learn that we like you.


  11. @15: Yes indeed! His statement that people in same-sex marriages should get full federal benefits would suggest that he’d support not only repealing the federal DOMA, but revising IRS policies, for example, to include same-sex marriages in joint filings, and so on.


  12. @5: Totally off topic now, but Tina, did you watch the Dems debate months ago on the LOGO channel? Only the Dems showed up and all but Hillary vacillated and didn’t take firm positions (except Richardson who said he wasn’t sure if people were born or made gay!!!).

    The Dems kept bashing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and Hillary’s response was to remind people that it was radical at the time — it allowed people to see that the military didn’t cease to be effective when there were clearly gays and lesbians serving. Her argument was that policies like that allowed public opinion to catch up — I really liked this and thought it was an instance of her being both smart and honest. No one else appeared to see it that way (esp. the LOGO audience and Melissa Ethridge) but I think she was clearly positioning the civil union rhetoric in the same way, and trying (with a wink) to suggest that it would make people realize that the civil union path was the way to ultimate equality in marriage (but, politically, couldn’t actually say this straight out).


  13. I wonder why Biden didn’t try to stick the party label on McCain-Palin rather than playing along with the idea that this isn’t about party. Take a look at the word cloud and try to find “Democrat” or “Republican.” Biden used “Republican” only six times. Palin used “Democrat” three times, but two of them were in the phrase “Republicans, Democrats, Independents” to indicate that this was not about party. It’s pretty clear to me that it’s been the Republicans who got us into these messes. But maybe the Dems have done research and discovered that such party identification doesn’t get them very far.

    As for Palin, read Jonathan Raban’s piece in the London Review of Books. (Raban’s a displaced Brit who has recently spent some time in Alaska.) Beneath the folksiness is a lot of ruthless ambition. Eve Harrington as hockey mom.


  14. @17: No, I didn’t see that debate, but that Clinton statement is a little disingenuous. Bill Clinton was proposing lifting the ban altogether on the campaign trail. It seemed straightforward, since it would only take an executive order. However, the Republicans, prodded by activists in the religious right, began to rally very quickly to make a big stink even though they didn’t have legislative authority over the decision. Rather than spend all his political capital, and his relationships with the military, in the first months of his presidency, interested parties worked out Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I think it did have the effect that Clinton mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t their intention to put a compromise in place to let public opinion catch up.


  15. sorry, my text was unclear — she was open about how they should have done more but that it had the unintended happy consequence on public opinion (your comment is why Melissa Ethridge and the audience wasn’t havin’ it).

    mostly i was just shocked that she would make a statement that came so close to supporting marriage openly, without concessions, and that civil unions were the way to ultimately get there — it makes me wonder if it would have caught up with her if she’d been the nominee and the Repubs again had the luxury of going with a culture-war strategy… in any case, it certainly is a large shift from when her husband was running.


  16. not to disagree that there has been an unprecedented movement in attitudes towards same sex couples, it truly has been amazing progress, but I was struck by how backwards Palin’s position is. She told us she is “tolerant” of gays couples… (unlike some of her friends, she adds). Tolerance conjures an image of necessarily dealing with an unpleasant or objectionable situation. I mean can you imagine ‘tolerance’ used to describe attitudes towards other groups? How racists would you (rightly) sound if you “tolerate blacks,’ how sexists if you “tolerated women?”


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