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The Vice Presidential Debate: It Gets Complicated

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The Vice Presidential Debate: It Gets Complicated

In a previous post, I said that Sarah Palin is no Dan Quayle. I’ll add that the Alaskan governor is no Tina Fey either.

If you’re afflicted with PDS (“Palin Derangement Syndrome”) the symptoms of which include: extreme hatred, e-mailing all your friends YouTube clips of that horrible Katie Couric performance, and rushing home early to catch Fey on Saturday Night Live, then it’s unlikely that you appreciated just how well she did at Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate. My guess is that it made your PDS flare up even more. For instance, I hear that Sandra Bernhard has now amended her calls for gang-raping Palin to include cannibalism.

Contrary to expectations, Palin was pretty damn good. Because I had predicted a bloodbath, the original title for this post was going to be: “Hot Potatoe” (clever, don’t “ya” think).

Did she win? I don’t know. I’ll concede that, if one were to strictly apply the rules of scoring, Biden won. But the same could be said for Apollo Creed. And neither Biden nor Creed won by the expected floor-mopping margin. In my experience, when people harp on the scorecard, it means their guy (or gal) has gotten smacked around a bit. For every point Biden scored challenging Palin to explain one of McCain’s position on the war or the economy, Palin was able to score one challenging Biden to explain his previously stated negative positions on Obama.

Chris Matthews, who now seems to have a full-blown case of PDS, histrionically (even for him) complained that Palin refused to answer the questions that were put to her. Perhaps. But Palin hardly invented that tactic. In my 22 years of watching debates, candidates routinely answer the questions the way they want to. Palin’s mistake might have been admitting to it.

During the RNC, I said I didn’t like the Palin pick. I still don’t. By putting the novice governor on his ticket, McCain jettisoned the experience argument he could have pounded Obama with during the campaign. I wanted the VP to be Romney because I assumed that the presidential election would be as much about the economy as foreign policy. As it turns out, I was wrong. The events of the last two weeks has made this election MORE about the economy than anything else. Romney would have balanced the ticket and given McCain a strong shot at rust belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and my home state of Michigan (where McCain, due to money problems, has just shut down operations).

The rocket of Palin’s announcement did seem to propel McCain’s campaign upward. However, that flight path leveled off very quickly. It’s not clear if the Palin effect had only so much fuel, or that the McCain camp erred by shutting down her engines in mid-burn. Palin made a number of appearances after the RNC, but she didn’t hit the media circuit as hard as expected. It gave many (including myself) the impression that Palin was secluded in some sort of VP candidate boot camp cramming for the campaign. Thus, the two times she did venture outside for an interview, it got a lot of attention and inflated importance. Her Couric appearance was a disaster. This, along with McCain’s fumbling of the “bailout” issue, toppled his campaign into full gimbal-lock.

I beg your indulgence as I go on yet another financial market crisis rant. If Sarah Palin is an alleged incompetent because she lacks experience, then someone explain House Leader Nancy Pelosi who is a proven incompetent with plenty of said experience. She gave a ridiculously partisan speech that skewered the Bush Administration and Republicans before the vote on the first bailout package. If she was so concerned about getting support from the reluctant GOP members of Congress (and based on what I’ve read about the bailout bill, I don’t blame them), then why did she go out of her way to throw them under the bus?

Democratic House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, his fingerprints all over this crisis and a recipient of two and a half million dollars in campaign contributions from the likes of JP Morgan Chase, the American Banking Association, and the National Association of Realtors, had the stones to pile on by remarking that those who voted “No” did so because their “feelings were hurt.”

I’d remind Congressman Frank that a number of Democrats voted “No,” too. Do the math. The Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House 233 to 202. To pass the damn bailout bill (or “rescue bill,” as it’s now being called), they didn’t need ONE f’n Republican vote. Not one. The problem was that the majority party of the last two years didn’t want to own it.

“One of the disadvantages of being a Patrician,” Lawrence Olivier’s Marcus Licinius Crassus comments in Spartacus, “is that occasionally you are obliged to act like one.”

The Senate version, 150 billion dollars more costly, containing tax break provisions for rum producers and auto-racing tracks, looks, if I can borrow an Obama phrase, like putting lipstick on a pig. But since McCain has already pissed in the pool, he’s in no position to complain now that it’s too warm.

Getting back to lipstick and pigs: on Thursday, Palin exhibited a common sense, down-to-earth persona that those who hate her don’t get and probably never will. Even Camille Paglia lauded Palin’s “brand new style of muscular American feminism.” And she did surprisingly well on the tough foreign policy questions. I agree with the pundits who thought her answers sounded a bit “rehearsed.” But Palin’s personality scored points before the first question was even asked, when, upon greeting Biden, she could be heard asking, “Can I call you Joe?” As Vincent Vega once said about pigs, “Personality goes a long way.”

Biden, by contrast, seemed like one of those stereotypical, polished politicians. Just when it seemed that I had gotten used to the hair plugs above his forehead, I now have to deal with the jarring result of what appears to be some eye work below it. Certainly, his years of experience showed as he effortlessly droned through the wonkish details of various legislative initiatives. Once, in the middle of an answer and lost in the minutiae of Senate procedure, Biden took a breath to acknowledge that the process “gets complicated.” This is why senators generally make bad national candidates. They get so engrossed in talking about the steak, they oftentimes forget to sell the sizzle.

To be sure, Palin had her bad moments too. My gut tells me that between the two, she’s more in touch with my life experience (forties, middle class, bunch of kids, yadda yadda). But there’s a hint of a Mary Kay sales lady about her. The incessant winking just didn’t work. And constantly bringing the conversation back to her ONE area of expertise, oil refineries, reminded me of an Eskimo that’s always talking about snow. When she made a reference to hearing soccer moms talk about their economic woes, I couldn’t help but think about Jimmy Carter discussing nuclear proliferation with his eleven year old daughter Amy. For what it’s worth, I’ve been around plenty of soccer moms (and dads). They almost never stop to discuss anything lest they miss a golden opportunity to see their kid kick the ball once. Hell, I get funny looks for using my cellphone.

For all his detail on most topics, Biden gave little on Obama’s future plans for Iraq. It’s frankly not too clear to me what “shift responsibility and draw down” means any more than Bush’s plan to “clear, hold, and build.” Oh, I know what Biden’s trying to say. But, I don’t believe for a minute that a President Obama would do anything other than what the generals recommend. And Biden did support what I considered the goofy idea of repartitioning Iraq into its pre-World War One boundaries. Talk about looking backward. Good luck with that.

I was particularly fascinated by their answers to the same-sex partner benefits question. For what it’s worth, I’m not only for “same sex marriage,” but think that the term “civil union” is a cop out. Predictably, Biden supported rights for “committed couples.” Then, Palin, who did veto a bill that would have banned granting such benefits for public employees in Alaska, chimed in to make it clear that she was against “marriage” rights for gays. Biden responded, very quickly and almost too firmly, that he and Obama were opposed to “gay marriage” as well (I wonder what Andrew Sullivan thought right then). My hypocrisy detector was going off for both of them. But, I think it sounded just a little louder for Biden. If he and Obama are against same-sex marriage, how would they define “committed couples.” This is where I scream “a pox on both your houses.”

I’ll finish by just noting that Gwen Ifill did a fine job. I believe that the controversy over her new book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (due out in, ahem, January of 2009), was much ado about nothing. If anything, it helped Palin because any hint of one-sidedness in Ifill’s questioning would have been pounced on by McCain’s surrogates. And besides, are there ANY conservatives on NPR?

So, there we are. Americans, who love a good David versus Goliath story, got to see Palin go toe-to-toe with Biden and give as good as she got. SNL will still do those Tina Fey skits. Only, they just won’t have the same bite. I realize this will make the PDS’ers groan, but that Palin chick has a future in the Republican party.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention that it’s going be an Obama landslide in November?

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.