The VP Debate

Okay, just got done watching the vice presidential debate. A few thoughts.

As with last week’s presidential debate, the main thing to remember in determining who won and who lost is that this whole thing was aimed at that small proportion of voters who are still undecided. Anyone who  wasn’t going to be swayed one way or the other (and that includes me) was, or at least should have been, irrelevant to the two campaigns. Keeping that in mind, we need to ask: What were the candidates’ objectives for the evening?  Were those objectives the right ones? And to what extent did the candidates achieve their objectives?

Let’s start with Governor Palin. Given her recent disastrous interviews with Charlie Gibson and especially Katie Couric, and accompanying calls from prominent conservatives that she is embarrassingly unqualified and should step aside for the good of the party, Palin’s primary objective was simply to come across as coherent and minimally credible. By the extraordinarily low standards set by her recent performances, I think she achieved this objective. But scrambling merely to avoid disaster doesn’t leave much room to get anything positive done (does this sound familiar?  Think treasury bailout…).

To put it another way: another “When Putin rears his head” moment, and the McCain campaign would have been dead and buried (as things stand, as I’ve argued before, I think the McCain campaign is merely dead. She didn’t have one of those, and so managed to avoid catastrophe. So far, so good.

(Here are all the recent interview highlights, BTW, courtesy of TPM)

Her second, related objective, was to seem “presidential.” That is, if you were undecided, would you come away from the debate believing Palin is ready to be president? Could you comfortably imagine her as  president? Palin’s objective was to get undecideds to answer these questions “yes.” Did she?

I don’t think so. Here’s why.

When Palin went out of her way to correctly pronounce the names of foreign leaders like Achmadinejad and Kim Jung Il, it was in support of the “win undecideds by seeming presidential” objective, and was smart. But she spent far more time saying things like “Darn right, Joe six pack, soccer moms, I’m gonna speak directly to the voters, kinda, you may not like the way I answer questions, I’m from Wasilla, you know, bless their hearts, and I’ve been campaigning for like five weeks, doggonit, talkin’ and wantin’ and doin,’ I want to speak to the American people without the filter of the mainstream media,” and other such folksie, awe shucks, down-home, regular-girl verbal mannerisms and anti-condescending liberal elitist asides. None of which was in the least presidential. So what was it all about?

The “awe shucks” stuff was intended to fire up the base. And I imagine it did. The problem is, the base already believes she’s their kind of gal and is going to vote for her because of it. So this second objective — fire up the base — was at best wasteful, because the base is already in the bag. They were baiting a hook for a fish that’s already caught. The only thing that matters then, again, is how did “awe shucks” play to the undecideds?

Of course I could be wrong or I could be projecting, but I don’t think the regular-girl schtick brings in the undecideds. Here, the low expectations she had created with her recent interview disasters worked against her. The essential problem is that Palin has set expectations so low that even if she exceeds them, people will still recognize it’s not enough. Acting like a regular gal doesn’t change that dynamic; it worsens it.

My sense is that at this point, outside the base, people don’t believe Palin knows anything about foreign policy, the economy, or other national issues. I doubt they believe she’s even given such outside- Alaska issues any thought.  All of which made even her successful answers seem like well-executed rote recitations. As for the balance of her oratory, it was mostly repeated invocations of the evils of  greed and corruption, promises to put the American people first, and lots of “John McCain is a maverick, a maverick, a maverick, the consummate maverick, we’re a team of mavericks, John McCain takes on his own party, he does what’s right for the American people, he’ll take on his own party, he’s ruffled feathers, John McCain knows how to win a war, he will know how to win a war, he will, he will…”. In the absence of any substance, in the context of the expectations she’s set, combined with the awe-shucks schtick and what felt to me like an overly chirpy, slightly manic persona, I think undecideds will come away feeling she was evasive, unclear, and unready. All of which is ultimately testimony to John McCain’s judgment, or lack of it, in picking her to begin with.

Along these lines, her claim that “your plan for Iraq is a white flag of surrender” was red meat for the base. But did undecideds buy it? It also sounded a lot like the worst of George Bush, which played to the Obama campaign’s objective of making McCain “more of the same.” Were there any undecideds who felt that Palin even has the basis for such an opinion? Before being invited to be next in line for the presidency, Palin claimed only to have heard about the “surge” in Iraq on the news. Everything else she knows, she’s learned in the last few weeks. Given the recency of her familiarity with these issues, Palin’s chirpy confidence carries the whiff of a true believer. Again, I think undecideds will come away deciding the country has 
endured quite enough of that.

Also, “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem” is the wrong message when the economy is cratering.  It’s dissonant with the galactic bailout her running mate supposedly suspended his campaign to try to support. People uninterested in such subtleties are already voting for McCain/Palin. People who distrust slogans unsupported by facts will now be more inclined to vote otherwise.

So again, Palin was given two mutually inconsistent objectives: bring in the undecideds, fire up the base.  Worse, the McCain campaign clearly gave greater weight to the second one. You could see this in their choice of summation, which essentially came down to “freedom isn’t free” and “the mainstream media is in the tank for the liberals.” Who was that aimed at? Who found it persuasive?

Okay, now Senator Biden. His objective was simply to seem more presidential than Palin. Doing so required only that he demonstrate a greater command of substance and more gravitas, and avoid seeming to talk down to Palin lest he alienate women or otherwise win Palin a sympathy vote. For voters who’ve heard Biden can be a gasbag, he would get bonus points by being brief and down to earth. These weren’t difficult objectives to achieve, and I’d say he achieved them handily through his command of the subject matter and calm, confident manner. The Obama campaign made a very smart move in directing Biden to go after McCain the way Biden did: doing so was calculated to diminish the top of the McCain/Palin ticket, of course, but more importantly, it implicitly emphasized that Biden is McCain’s peer and equal. By contrast, again, when Palin delivered her “white flag of surrender” line, I can’t imagine anyone outside the base felt she had any basis for her opinion.

There were a few small slips. Biden referred to himself as Joe Biden three times. To me, people who refer to themselves in the third person are as weird as people who whistle in public, and his doing so did tend to reinforce the gasbag hypothesis. He also had a tendency to use too many numbers and percentages. Doing so demonstrated a mastery of detail, I suppose, but sometimes the blizzard of numbers seemed to obscure the more fundamental point he was trying to make. My biggest disappointment was his failure to respond when Palin pointed out he once said he’d be honored to run with John McCain. This was a perfect opening for what I’ve argued should be one of the central narratives of the Obama campaign: What’s happened to John McCain? Biden could have said, “I did say that, and I meant it.  But something’s happened to John since then. He’s not the same man we all knew and admired in the senate.” But in hindsight and from the sidelines, it’s easy to come up with minor points like these. For purposes of analyzing whether Biden achieved his objectives, they’re barely relevant.

I liked it when Biden attacked back on Palin’s “maverick” perseveration. It exposed one of the key differences between them: Palin (like McCain) seems to believe that claims without evidence are credible. Outside the base, they’re not. Biden responded with evidence. Doing so demonstrated his command of substance, and exposed her as a millimeter-deep lightweight glued to catch-phrases and talking points.

Needless to say, all of this is snap-judgment stuff. I think when the pundits weigh in and start dissecting Palin’s various lies, mistakes, and distortions (Obama voted 93 times to raise taxes, voted against funding the troops, etc.), the initial sense that she’s not ready will harden.

A thought about the moderator and rules of debate: would anything have been different if instead of Gwen Ifill, they had used a computer to flash the questions on a screen? If the answer is “no different” (and I think it is) — that is, if the moderator’s value- add is no more than reading questions off a pile of cards — we might conclude that the rules were lame, or the moderator was useless, or both.

Overall, I think the best anyone could say for Palin is that she exceeded the stunningly low expectations her recent performances have established. I can’t imagine that a material number of undecideds watched this debate and decided based on it to vote for McCain/Palin (I can, however, easily imagine it picking up some undecideds for Obama/Biden). So the best you can say is that Palin avoided making things much worse for her ticket.  Which is another way of saying that in November, Barack Obama will be elected president.