The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, October 3, 2008

Toe-to-Toe, Not Foot-in-Mouth

I watched the Vice-Presidential debate last night, sitting in my chair and staring at the television screen, as is my wont. My wife was in the room next door, listening to the TV drone as she worked/played on the computer, as is her wont.

About a half hour or forty-five minutes into the event, she called out, “Is it just me or is Palin getting creamed out there?”

“No,” I said, genuinely surprised. “I think she’s doing a good job at holding her own against Biden.”

“Really?” she replied, her own surprise clearly as deep and genuine as my own.

Our exchange might well summarize the evening in a nutshell. If you listened to the debate, then Biden won it. If, on the other hand, you watched the debate, it was a draw.

This was never Biden’s debate to win. Viewed as Palin’s clear superior in both policy knowledge and debating experience, his bar was set excessively high for him to control the outcome. At best, he would come across as unexciting and at worst, as condescending or a gaffe machine. Winning or losing lay in Palin’s hands alone.

Thus, Biden’s strategy was to not lose and hope that Palin would badly blunder. This did not happen.

Palin did extremely well last night. She was supremely confident and at ease. She oozed likeability and charm when she was connecting with Main Street Americans as well as when she was slipping a knife between the opposition’s ribs with a wink and a smile.

A CNN poll taken immediately after the debates showed about eight-five percent of viewers found her to have performed better than expected. This was partly due to how low her bar was set, based on her limited television interviews. Still, Palin did not merely exceed expectations but actually performed as well as she was capable. On that basis, she should have handed Biden his head on a platter.

The reason she did not is Biden’s relative performance. That same CNN poll showed sixty-five percent of viewers also found Biden performed better than expected. With his bar set unrealistically high, Biden impressed almost as much as Palin with her bar set incredibly low. Palin pulled off the best night she has enjoyed in the past two months; Biden had the night of his life.

Employing a boxing analogy, Biden is a heavyweight and Palin a lightweight in their debating styles. Biden lumbers around without much defense, swinging enthusiastically but not always accurately. Sometimes he takes so long winding up for a punch, his opponent has danced away before he can even throw it, let alone land it.

Palin is much more a natural jabber. She darts in and out, using Republican talking points and sarcasm to take down her opponents with surgical precision, often before they realize what hit them.

The rapid pace of the debate ought to have favored Palin. However, like McCain, she tried a long-shot risk and battled Biden more on his terms, striding out to the center of the ring and trading jabs toe-to-toe with him there.

She was effective in that regard, landing blow after blow after blow. Yet Biden seemed to absorb her punches rather than being throw off by them and for each punch he delivered a factual counterpunch that often left Palin unable to answer. While last night’s format favored her policy shortcomings and rhetorical style more than in-depth interviews, she often seemed unable to deal with the reality that, unlike a stump speech, her devastating accusations and cutting one-liners would not go unmet and unchallenged.

Palin certainly helped her own reputation with last night’s performance but, counter to the forming conventional wisdom, I think she helped McCain too.

First, she helped quiet growing doubts, even among some conservatives, about McCain’s judgment in picking her simply by proving her own mettle. Second, I suspect her performance will reenergize the Republican base in a manner similar to if not quite as intense as her convention speech. Third, it is “safe” for her to appear in public again and she continues to be an effective campaigning tool, if only for the large crowds she consistently draws.

However, with only a month left to go in this contest, Biden did the most direct good for the top of his ticket. He was not especially charming or awe-inspiring about it but he was relentlessly on message in tying McCain to the failed policies of the Bush Administration and much of the current financial crisis and general economic downturn.

Americans tuned into this debate waiting to see which V.P. candidate would under-perform most abysmally. Instead, they saw a lively exchange in which both candidates excelled. This is only to the good for the nation. Biden happened to be the candidate who excelled more and that is only to the good for Barack Obama.

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