Special Debate Edition
So Gov. Sarah Palin didn't fall on her face in last night's debate with Sen. Joseph Biden, her rival for the vice presidency, as so many thought that she might. And Biden, who should find himself encouraged by the snap polls that followed, avoided putting his foot in his mouth, as is occasionally his habit. This morning likely finds both John McCain and Barack Obama breathing sighs of relief. Around the liberal and progressive blogosphere, reactions were both cautious and mixed.
David Corn of Mother Jones heralded the end of "the Sarah Palin Reality TV show":
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.
At the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Steve Benen was unimpressed either way:
My initial reaction was that this debate will probably make no difference whatsoever. Biden was obviously sharper and more knowledgeable. Palin had obviously memorized a series of talking points she repeated over and over again.
Who won? For viewers who checked their heads at the door, I guess it was a toss-up. For anyone who cares about susbtance, it wasn't close. Palin justkept repeating lies and nonsense, regardless of the question, and regardless of common sense. On point after point, Biden just out-classed her. The two really didn't belong on the same stage.
Writing from Los Angeles for New America Media, Jasmyne A. Cannick argued that, in essence, they really weren't on the same stage:
There were three debates going on tonight. The one Gwen Ifill was moderating and the one both Senator Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin came to participate in.
I wish that for just once, when I take time out of my day, a day that is busy from the moment I wipe the crust out of my eyes to the minute I fall asleep at my desk and my snoring wakes me up, that when the candidates come together to debate each other and the moderator asks them a question...they just answered it. I know, a novel idea.
As Heather Gehlert observed at AlterNet, "Many politicians have mastered the art of dodging questions," she wrote. "What struck me about this debate was that Sarah Palin has mastered the art of something else: making you forget the question."
Kevin Drum, blogging for Mother Jones, put it this way:
I'll be honest: I genuinely didn't understand about 50% of what Sarah Palin said. She pretty overtly didn't even pretend to address a lot of [moderator Gwen] Ifill's questions -- probably because she couldn't -- and a lot of her filibustering ended up sounding like random strings of phrases from the Hockey-Mom-o-Bot 3000. This was especially true as time wore on. If nothing else, this makes it almost impossible to judge the substance of what she believes, and despite the fact that she "connects" with ordinary people, I have a feeling that an awful lot of ordinary people weren't impressed with this.
On the other hand, A. Serwer of The American Prospect's TAPPED blog, wasn't so keen on those questions. "Obviously, Gwen Ifill's biggest problem is not bias, but really bad questions, Serwer wrote . As an example, he offers, "'Which is worse? A nuclear Iran or an unstable Pakistan?' I'm paraphrasing, but that question is roughly equivalent to 'would you rather be stabbed or shot?'"
And about those ordinary people Drum spoke of, Salon's Walter Shapiro watched the debate with a group of Republican-leaning voters in Green Bay, Wisc., and his observations would bear out Drum:
Watching a debate in an intensely partisan setting can be a through-the-looking-glass experience since the verdict has been determined before the trial. But what was telling Thursday night was that the mood of the volunteers was subdued. At times it seemed like the delivery of six pizzas was a more dramatic event than the most over-hyped vice-presidential debate in history. This emotional reticence was in no way a reflection on Palin, but rather a reaction to the overly scripted debate. As Stephanie Kundert, the 26-year-old campaign manager for state Rep. Karl Van Roy, said after blogging the debate for a conservative website, "In parts, it was boring."
The Washington Independent's Laura McGann filed from Peanut Farm Bar & Grill, a bar in Anchorage, mixing her debate-blogging with lots of local color:
This place looks ideal. We've got nine full-size projector screens with Fox News on and six flat screens also tuned into Fox.
I'd expect an interesting crowd, as Gov. Sarah Palin's sister watched Palin give her famous Republican convention speech here...two people just sat down at the table next to me wearing T-shirts featuring Sarah Palin riding a polar bear in front of the Washington Capitol Building.
AlterNet's Don Hazen filed from the other end of the world (or so it seems) -- a room filled with artists in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. There he found his compatriots about as reticent to claim a victory for Biden as the Green Bay Republicans were to declare one for Palin:
[T]here was a separate, contrary undercurrent in the room and in follow-up interviews. It was a disquiet, which I shared with half a dozen people I spoke with. Call us the working class sympathizers. Maybe because of our roots, or work as artists, we are more tuned in to the reality where form can often take precedence over substance.
One actress, who has been doing some speaking for Obama in Pennsylvania offered that Palin scared her: "She was slick, she had her role down; she is going to appeal to people more than we think." An artist, with roots in working class Philly was clearly disturbed: "Pallin hung in there; it pissed me off. I think for some voters, it is not what she says, but how she says it, and she had the language thing down. People in this room may dismiss it, but to some people, she sounds real and authentic, and that will help her."
Because of the ideosyncratic nature of this debate -- no steering the candidates back to the questions they strayed from answering -- much of the critique hung on style rather than substance: Palin stared at the camera, Biden addressed the moderator; Palin asked to call Biden by his first name, then never did; Biden cried when talking about caring for his sons when they were in critical condition. However, substance there was, such as when Palin let it drop that she thought the Constitution conferred upon the office of the Vice Presidency powers that have yet to be exercised, an assertion that even mainstream media commentators found somewhat astonishing. Liveblogging from Anchorage, McGann wrote: "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Which branch????"
Both candidates claimed to be great fans of Israel, and there was an exchange on whether the Global War on Terrorism was centered in Iraq or on the Afghan/Pakistan border.
TAPPED's Serwer observed, "Palin's best moment so far was calling Biden out on trying to have it both ways on the war. She's absolutely right that he was engaging in Washington speak, not that platitudes topped by nonsense and gibberish are much better."
At Grist, Kate Sheppard assessed the candidates' response to questions on energy and the environment, and discovered some Biden doublespeak:
Biden made other remarks sure to perk up the ears of Grist readers, especially his assertion that "I have always supported [clean coal], and that's a fact" -- a much stronger pronouncement than his previous statements on the subject. He added, "By investing in clean coal and safe nuclear ... we can create new jobs," and later in the debate repeated, "My record for 25 years has been supporting clean coal."
Even as recently last week, Biden said "We're not supporting 'clean coal.'" And last year, in an interview with Grist, he said, "I don't think there's much of a role for clean coal in energy independence." He's always said, however, that he thinks that "clean coal" technology should be exported to China, which he repeated tonight: "China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week. It's polluting not only the atmosphere but the West Coast of the United States. We should export the technology by investing in clean coal technology."
Blogging for The Nation, Ari Melber saw a bit more substance than some of his colleagues in the progressive blogosphere, but that didn't stop him from culling video clips of some of the less substantive moments. "Thursday's vice presidential debate was a serious and substantive affair," he wrote. "With superb moderating by Gwen Ifill, the conversation stuck to policy-driven sparring, but the footage is already taking a different shape on YouTube." Click here to see Melber's spicey moments.
Greg Sargent of TPM Election Central was among the first to share with us the results of the CBS snap poll that showed Biden the clear winner of the debate:
The first round of snap polls give the debate to Joe Biden, by sizable margins.
CBS polled 473 uncommitted debate-watchers, and found that 46% say Biden won, 21% say Palin won, and 33% say it was a tie.
While both candidates saw their images improve, 98% saw Biden as "knowledgeable" after the debate, while only 66% saw Palin as knowledgeable, an admittedly high number, given what folks thought of her before tonight.
It's not wise to put too much stock in snap polls. But if this bears out, it'll confirm our earlier argument: Palin's disastrous interviews raised expectations for her tonight, in the sense that the pressure on her to prove she's ready for the job was even higher than it otherwise might have been. And she didn't prove it, at least according to these early numbers.
Writing at his eponymous blog, Ezra Klein of The American Prospect concluded:
At the end of the day, it wasn't about expectations. Palin surpassed hers. Shattered them, in fact. The stumbling, tongue-tied, intellectually uncertain novice who withered before Katie Couric's steady questioning was absent this evening. Palin was confident, on-message, and at times, sharp. But it didn't matter. The polls were clear... Like McCain before her, Palin performed at the top of her game, and it wasn't enough.
Whether or not that will matter, well, we'll know in about a month.
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