For the past few weeks, it’s seemed as if Sarah Palin has been a contestant in the ultimate version of the reality show America’s Toughest Jobs. She passed the first challenge: give a Big Speech. She did fine on the next one: hit the campaign trail. She royally screwed up the third challenge: give a Big Interview. Then came the most difficult one: hold your own in a Big Debate. And she did.
For 90 minutes Governor Palin, who had become a bleeding ulcer for the McCain campaign, stuck to well-crafted talking points, recited them with passion and conviction, and played the part of the spunky, down-home, up-North middle-class-mom-turned-governor well. She did not demonstrate much depth in policy knowledge, but she managed to display treading-water familiarity with the obvious issues of the day. (Media and advocacy group factcheckers will soon be producing the list of her factual misrepresentations.) It helped that moderator Gwen Ifill did not pose questions that might push her off her script. Palin repeated buzz phrases–“greed and corruption of Wall Street,” for instance–over and over. (She was obviously coached to use the word maverick repeatedly, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum observed after the debate.) For some viewers, her autopilot replies might be a turnoff. But for conservatives and independents who want to like her, she probably performed well enough–and she probably performed well enough to stop the hemorrhaging she had caused the campaign.
Which means that perhaps John McCain will return to center stage, as Palin–and her uninformed responses to Katie Couric’s questions–becomes less of an issue.
There were no grand moments during the debate–and no bad moments for either Palin or Joe Biden, the Other Man of the evening. Palin did what a veep candidate is supposed to do: tout the head of the ticket and attack the person topping the other ticket. She reiterated the McCain’s camp’s usual attacks on Barack Obama: he wants to raise taxes and lose a war. More important, she sought to sell herself as the Everymom who knows firsthand the concerns of middle-class Americans who fret about their kids, health coverage, and college tuition. But other than talk about tax cuts, tax cuts, and tax cuts, Palin didn’t have much to offer such voters policy-wise. When she referred to McCain’s health care plan, Biden countered that the campaign’s proposal to tax health care benefits would lead to millions losing coverage that costs an average of $12,000 a year and that McCain’s proposed $5000 tax credit for health care plans would not make up the gap. “I call that the ultimate Bridge to Nowhere,” Biden quipped–in one of his few quippy moments of the evening. And there was that moment Palin seemingly endorsed Dick Cheney’s expansive view of the vice presidency. Biden replied that Cheney “has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history.”
What Palin relied on was her style. Her message: I’m like you. And I’m darn feisty. When Biden pointed out she had not responded to his charge that McCain has been a champion deregulator for years and shares part of the blame for the current financial crisis, she shot back: “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.” At another point, Palin, in an aw-shucks manner, celebrated her status as a non-Washingtonian. It came after Biden noted that he had voted in 2002 to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq but had warned that an invasion without strong ally support would lead to a costly war lasting for years. Palin replied, “Oh, yeah, it’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You’re one who says, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice-versa.” And she played to the voters within the conservative base–who already know she is one of them–by calling Obama’s’ tax plan a redistribution of wealth and by talking about the need to “fight for our freedoms.” She seemed to suggest that if Obama and Biden were elected freedom would take a blow and “we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.”
After the debate, Santorum commented, “Did she show she had a familiarity with a number of particular policy matters? Not particularly.” But, he added, she had come across as “clear and concise” and had managed to convey a positive impression of herself and her views to the American public.
For his part, Biden committed no errors. He obviously knew the issues better. He repeatedly promoted Obama’s policy proposals that would benefit the middle class. He portrayed McCain as an extension of the past eight years. (“Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again,” Palin countered). He decried McCain as a fan of big tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, such as ExxonMobile. And for a guy who has been in the Senate for three decades, Biden did a decent enough job of showing his old working-class roots. He teared up when he spoke of the car accident that claimed the life of his first wife and their daughter. Noting that the Bush administration has placed the nation into “a very deep hole,” Biden vowed that an Obama administration would offer “fundamental change” in the nations economic and national security policies.
When Biden praised Obama, he praised his ideas, his proposals. When Palin hailed McCain, she hailed him, his personal qualities. Fighter. Maverick. Reformer. The debate, in a way, was a contest between a policy-person and a people-person. A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters found that 46 percent of them scored Biden the winner, over 21 percent who favored Palin. A CNN poll gave Biden a 51-to-36 percent win. Policy triumphing over presentation? Maybe. But Palin clearly had stopped her free-fall. And she is something of a winner because there is–sorry, YouTube– no videotape footage from the debate that makes her look undeniably like a ninny. What did George W. Bush once say about the bigotry of low expectations? Sometimes they can almost work like an affirmative action program.
With this debate, the Sarah Palin reality TV program may be done. And the spotlight shifts to the main contenders. That may be a mixed blessing for the slipping-in-the-polls McCain.