From the Editorial Board
The Biden-Palin Debate
Joe Biden is a brilliant senator who has a reputation for saying dumb things. Sarah Palin is a glittery governor who’s building a reputation for saying dumber things. People sitting down to watch the two debate on Thursday may have had a pre-race NASCAR thought or two: Will there be a crash? Or 10?
There were none, except for Palin crashing through the lowest bar of expectations in the history of vice-presidential, and, perhaps high-school, debating. She smiled. She did the Reagan head tilt. She spoke mostly coherent sentences, even if most of her answers had nothing to do with the questions. And, you betcha, she out-NASCARed herself with rapid-fire flips through the Darn Official Thesaurus of Folksiness (Wasilla edition).
It made for an interesting evening. It did little to change the impression that John McCain must’ve been having a senior moment when he picked Palin as his running mate. She’s a ready debater. She’s not ready to be vice president, let alone president.
Palin connected with a segment of the audience predisposed to suspend disbelief. She did not answer questions about Iraq, restarting the economy, using nuclear weapons (“the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet”) or even what she would do as vice president. It didn’t help when she retreated to her energy plan when asked about the mortgage bailout, retreated again to energy when asked about an onerous bankruptcy bill John McCain supported, pleaded rookie status when asked what campaign pledges she might scale back because of the financial crisis (“How long have I been at this? Like, five weeks?”) and confused the American general managing the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan (Gen. David McKiernan) with the general who managed the bloody stalemate at Antietam (Gen. George McClellan). Palin showed herself capable of being prepped for a 90-minute showdown over perceptions.
But the surprise of the evening wasn’t Palin clearing almost nonexistent expectations. It was Biden exceeding his. He may have been duller than Palin, but his command of the issues, his connection with real-world challenges (mortgage payments, college costs, health care, knowing the difference between Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the palpable fact that he didn’t have to rely on behavioral gimmickry to make his points spoke the essential truth of the evening. Should either of these candidates be in the White House, Palin would have to be prepped on virtually any issue of the day. Biden would have to be prepped on virtually none.
Politically, it didn’t help McCain that even before it started, the debate was a Palin rehabilitation exercise rather than a chance to strengthen McCain’s struggling campaign. That’s all it still was by debate’s end, as an unspoken irony came into focus: What Barack Obama avoided by not including Hillary Clinton on his ticket, perhaps out of fear that the race would be more about Clinton than Obama, McCain has now achieved by picking Palin: His race is too much about her, too little about him. And what there’s been of her as a vice-presidential nominee remains unsettling about both of them: her sanctimonious ignorance, his devalued judgment.