Friday, October 03, 2008

All Things To All People

The debate last night was less than memorable. There were no "You're no John Kennedy" moments. It was basically what debates are these days, a reassurance to the supporters of both sides. Sarah Palin came in having passed through some very rough press coverage. Her interviews showed her to be less than knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. There were some who questioned whether she would even show up. Well, she did show up and provided at least a measure of relief to her supporters. She didn't have any deer in the headlights moments and managed to get through the entire 90 minutes without making a major gaffe. Biden entered the debate with a clear mission to make sure he got the message out that a McCain administration would essentially be a continuation of the Bush administration. And considering he mentioned John McCain and George Bush in at least half his answers, he accomplished what he set out to do.

Sarah Palin may have impressed her core supporters, but her outright refusal to answer some of the questions should have been called out more often by Gwen Ifill. It seemed clear to me that Ms. Ifill had been shaken by the criticism of her by the McCain campaign and the right leaning press about the fact that she was writing a book that contained a chapter about Barack Obama. Instead of challenging the candidates when they refused to answer a question, she almost meekly moved on to the next topic. It was quite disappointing to see such a respected and competent journalist and interviewer cowed into a less than representative performance.

Joe Biden's performance was solid. He demonstrated the depth and breadth of his knowledge and he was on his best behavior when it came to dealing with Sarah Palin. He always referred to her as Governor and for the most part refused to engage her when she gave him on opening. He defended Barack Obama and attacked John McCain, but almost acted as if Sarah Palin was a mere stand in for John McCain. He did not attack her record, or the inconsistencies in her speeches, he attacked John McCain and tied him George Bush as often as possible. I thought his worst moment came when he said that he did not support Gay marriages. I know that both he and Barack Obama do not agree with that point, and his delivery of the line was not very convincing. It was also his most "politician-y" moment of the night. Barack Obama has promised a new kind of politics, but this was just an example of more politics as usual.

Sarah Palin regurgitated her standard talking points throughout the night. She never at any point demonstrated deep knowledge of any topic that was discussed. And her winking, giggling and at times, dismissive attitude felt very wrong for the serious situation this country now finds itself in. She almost seemed to revel in the fact that she was not going to answer the questions that were asked. If a topic came up that she was unfamiliar with, she would quickly pivot to either a story about her time as a mayor in Alaska or to energy policy. Her worst moment came when she actually talked about expanding the powers of the Vice President. I'm not sure what her point was there and it seemed to come out of left field. She probably did a lot to assuage the fears of her supporters who were afraid that the debate would be a repeat of the Couric/Gibson interviews. At no point did she freeze up, although she did utter some absolutely non-sensical sentences and phrases.

The pundits now watch the debates, less for substance, but to try and pick out what moment "connected" with the viewers. In the first McCain - Obama debate there was more talk about McCain's body language than about his actual substantive answers. We have gotten to the point where style can triumph over substance. Just another example of how George W. Bush has contributed to the glorification of mediocrity. The line that some pundits have used about Sarah Palin being "one of us" should be absolutely frightening to almost everyone. Since when did we decide that the most important job in the country should be put in the hands of the "average citizen". I wonder if most American's pick their doctors or lawyers this way. I wonder if when they ask for a referral to a specialist, they ask for the one who is the most average. I can imagine the conversation, "I need brain surgery?Could you tell if you know of any really average surgeons? I don't like those elitist, smart ones. They don't really seem to understand my problems." Or "I'm on trial for my life? Could you get me the lawyer who finished fifth from the bottom of their graduating class of 450. And no he doesn't need to know much about the law, just as long as he's someone that speaks my language and I wouldn't mind having a drink with."

The bottom line is that people watching probably got exactly what they wanted out of the debate. Leaners were probably more inclined to lean in their chosen direction and those who have already made their decisions were certainly not motivated to change their minds based on anything that was done last night. It seems clear that debates (at least as these are structured) don't offer much upside. However, each candidate must be careful to avoid the gaffe heard 'round the world. This leads to less spirited debate and more repetition of rehearsed and familiar lines and themes. They may be boring, but the candidates still have to be on their toes, lest they suffer the fate of Gerald Ford, who still to this day is best known for falling down (thanks to SNL) and for claiming, during his debate with Jimmy Carter, that there was no soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Just a side note: Why the hell can't the Republicans find candidates who can pronounce the word nuclear. It's not cute or endearing or funny or folksy or whatever other "code" word it is that is used to describe the inability to pronounce words. Sarah Palin and George Bush are not cute toddlers with a lisp. One is, and one is vying to become the leader of this nation. It makes them both sound illiterate and stupid when they fail at the correct use of the English language. I bet even those so called "average" folks that they are supposed to appeal to can pronounce the word. What the hell is nu - cu - lar anyway?

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