The 2008 VP Debate: Winking and (Nearly) Nodding Off

by matttbastard

(h/t Top of the Ticket for the vid)

To quote the always-quotable John Lydon, “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”  After generating an inordinate, unprecedented level of manufactured hype and controversy, I find myself fully in agreement with Melissa McEwan: last night’s highly anticipated political reality show vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden proved to be, for lack of a better word, unbelievably boring.  As Liss memorably puts it, “I may have fallen asleep if Palin’s mispronunciation of nuclear didn’t keep compelling me to jam pencils into my ears.”

Defying expectations (duh), Palin was serviceable if unspectacular in her role, no doubt due in large part to the favourable follow-up-free format, coupled with a novel “ignore the question” non sequitur strategy. She managed to achieve the bare minimum of what she was supposed to do: climb over the inch-high bar that had been deliberately erected in the sub-basement of collective public and pundit expectations, to the prefabricated delight of dime-turning conservative ‘critics’ like David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, both of whom, as Daniel Larison says, proved themselves to be intellectually incurious, easily impressed hacks:

She is not a person of thought but of action. ~Peggy Noonan

On Thursday night, Palin took her inexperience and made a mansion out of it. From her first “Nice to meet you. May I call you Joe?” she made it abundantly, unstoppably and relentlessly clear that she was not of Washington, did not admire Washington and knew little about Washington. She ran not only against Washington, but the whole East Coast, just to be safe. ~David Brooks

Noonan and Brooks actually fall over themselves trying to compliment Palin on the modest success of being coherent, but these excerpts are striking in that someone might have written them as withering, sarcastic criticism and instead they are supposed to be a celebration of her virtues. Noonan complains that Biden showed too much forbearance, but this is exactly what Noonan and Brooks show in their efforts to tip-toe around the obvious that for all her mastery of the non-answer and glittering generalities, to borrow Halcro’s language, she did not do very well.  Incredibly, her fans don’t seem to mind debasing the meaning of excellence if it allows them to call what we saw last night excellent.

Roger Simon of The Politico earnestly sums up the conventional wisdom circulating throughout The Village:

Sarah Palin was supposed to fall off the stage at her vice presidential debate Thursday evening. Instead, she ended up dominating it.

She not only kept Joe Biden on the defensive for much of the debate, she not only repeatedly attacked Barack Obama, but she looked like she was enjoying herself while doing it.

She smiled. She faced the camera. She was warm. She was human. Gosh and golly, she even dropped a bunch of g’s.

“John McCain doesn’t tell one thing to one group and somethin’ else to another,” she said. “Those huge tax breaks aren’t comin’ to those huge multinational corporations.”

She went out of her way to talk in everyday terms, saying things like “I betcha” and “We have a heckuva opportunity to learn” and “Darn right we need tax relief.”


True, a lot of her statements were of the fortune cookie variety. “At end of day,” she said, “if we are all working together for the greater good, it is going to be OK.”

But a lot of people like fortune cookies.

Politics as Chinese food–there’s an apt metaphor in there. Winking, “Joe Sixpack”, and “drill, baby, drill” may play well among the celebrity-obsessed Us Weekly constituency who, as Matt Taibbi noted in a recent Rolling Stone feature, “simply consume [candidates] as media entertainment”. But, after ninety minutes of being force-fed insubstantial talking points like “you betcha!”, “a pair of mavericks” and “hockey mom” wisdom, I was left feeling intellectually malnourished (and rather besotted).

One wonders what might have been, had Palin been thrust into a rousing, demanding debate format similar to the round-table free-for-all here in the Great White North that also took place last night, where, pace Simon, simply being warm, human and fact-free wouldn’t provide the same amount of superficial rhetorical traction.

One also must question whether Palin went too far in attempting to establish her outsider cred. According to Steve M, rather than cementing her populist bona fides, Palin’s (self) indulgent one-sided rap-session with the American people “points up the other huge problem with Palin, beyond her Bushite policy positions and her utter lack of qualifications for the job — her unbridled narcissism”:

Politicians tend to be narcissistic, obviously, but I think Palin’s self-obsession is the purest I’ve ever seen. Bill Clinton, for instance, can radiate narcissism, as can, say, Joe Biden (though not last night), but when Clinton and Biden are self-regarding, it’s because they think they’re masters of the task at hand — politics or statecraft. Palin’s self-regard is most nakedly obvious when she’s landed a zinger. The insufferably smug look she gets on her face makes clear that all she cares about is Sarah Palin winning. The reason she can’t master the policy proposals, or even describe them in any detail, is that her ego isn’t invested in doing anything except advancing the cause of herself.

Regardless, Lola Adesioye doesn’t think the folksy, Reaganesque appeal to middle America will have much of an impact beyond Palin’s hardcore support base:

The over-use of buzz word such as “hockey moms” and “Joe Sixpack” did give the impression that Palin is an ordinary person. But when you’re in the running to be vice-president of the most powerful nation in the world, that is not necessarily a good thing. Biden, on the other hand, came across as commanding, highly knowledgeable and statesman-like – someone you could trust in a crisis.

This impression is further buttressed by the results of last night’s CNN/Opinion Research Corproration instant reaction poll, which found that although a majority of respondents found Palin to be “more likable” than Biden, “87 percent of the people polled said Biden is qualified while only 42 percent said Palin is qualified [to assume the presidency].”  Oh, and speaking of Biden, he too defied expectations, avoiding any gender-based condescension or embarrassing verbal slip-ups.  Nor did he attempt to draw blood from his opponent.

Instead, Biden seemed content directing his most vigourous attacks towards John McCain, reining in his legendary self-satisfied verbosity and allowing Palin to directly appeal to her rural right-wing base (although, as Joan Walsh observes, Palin missed an opportunity to temporarily suspend the lipstick pitbull routine and display some genuine–or feigned–non-partisan compassion after Biden emotionally referenced the tragic deaths of his first wife and daughter).

All of which is fine; by next week, this largely–and, considering the by-default also-ran stature of its participants, appropriately–negligible debate will have been forgotten, as all eyes will once again be focused on the lead protagonists in the edge-of-your-seat prime-time contest that is the 2008 presidential election, which is proving to be the best damn reality TV program since season three of America’s Next Top Model.

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