The vice presidential debate

It seems like no matter how much we voters want lively debates from our presidential and vice presidential candidates, they won’t give them to us. Thursday’s vice presidential debate could have been interesting and informative. Instead, many of us watching it felt inclined to nod off instead.

If you watch clips of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on the campaign trail, a lackluster debate would have been the last thing you would have expected. Like vice presidential candidates from time immemorial, both excel and attacking the other party’s presidential candidate using phrasing generally not permitted at the top of the ticket. And yet properly coached both Governor Palin and Senator Biden proved they could be mediocre speakers and debaters too.

Sarah Palin proved that given a sufficient number of cue cards she could speak on an issue without making any major gaffes provided she never strayed from approved talking points. Just to make sure she did not, at the start of the debate she imperiously announced that she was going to talk about what she wanted to talk about, whether or not it had anything to do with moderator Gwen Ifill’s questions. If this were a high school speech and debate competition, she would have been unceremoniously pulled off the team and sent home to mother. That this happened in a national debate should have been excruciatingly embarrassing. Clearly, the McCain campaign saw this approach as the lesser of two evils. Better for her to say convincingly what she had been coached to say, even if it held no relevance to the question at hand, than to stray into areas for which she had been insufficiently coached.

I guess no courses in Greek Literature were required for Mrs. Palin to graduate either college or high school. If she did have such a course, I have to assume she flunked it. This was clear when she was asked about her Achilles Heel and it was obvious that she had no idea what Gwen Ifill was talking about. So instead, she started talking about what she perceived as her good points!

As for Joe Biden, he was a small shadow of the man he is on the campaign trail. While he avoided his tendency to make gaffes, a gaffe or two might have enlivened the debate a bit. Biden is at his best when his dander is up and he is speaking from the heart, as this video documents. In this debate, he hardly raised his voice at all and stayed strictly on message. As a result, it was hard not to perceive him as just another boring white male vice presidential pick. His face looked washed out and his eyes drooped, perhaps a result of all the bright lights focused in his face. Of the two, he came across as more sober and presidential. Given that he was debating Sarah Palin it would have been impossible not to come across as more presidential.

Palin at least seemed alive. She was all perkiness and spunk. It was good to see her in some other color than red. All her coaching though could not mask a head that at best was only half full. This, of course, was exactly why the McCain campaign insisted on altering the debate rules so that notes were allowed and response times were minimized. It is no wonder that after seeing the debate that a majority of those polled said she was not ready to be president. She made Dan Quayle look brilliant. Still, there are plenty of voters who prefer attitude to substance. It is nice that she can identify so well with Wal-Mart shoppers and hockey moms. If I were a hockey mom, I might be offended to be linked with her because those I know are a whole lot more interesting and intellectually curious.

Again, not that it matters, but polls suggested that Biden “won” the debate, although in a debate this lackluster simply showing up and sounding reasonably coherent is all it takes. No vice presidential debate has yet proven to be a game changer. This one will not be either. To the extent that it helps anyone, it will help Barack Obama. Any up tick in Obama’s poll numbers this week will likely have much more to do with our disastrous economic situation than Palin’s deficiencies or Biden’s superior but lackluster debate performance.

I feel bad for moderator Gwen Ifill. It seems to me that Sarah Palin disrespected her and the Commission on Presidential Debates by her refusal to answer certain questions addressed to her. As a result, we learned little about Palin’s positions but plenty about her character. We learned enough to know that underneath her cheerleader façade is an obstinate and intellectually incurious woman. That was about the extent to which this debate was useful.

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