by Joshua H. Liberatore
The vice-presidential debate of last Thursday evening between veteran Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin served a few simple purposes. First and foremost, it satisfied anxious Republican pundits and campaigners that the PBS-supplied moderator, Gwen Ifill, would not bias her questions or her adjudication in favor of Obama, the subject of her forthcoming book. In fact, Ifill’s approach was notably light-handed; she was strict and disciplined only when it came to timekeeping. She did little to challenge the content and sway of either opponent’s responses or the expected repartee. She neither pushed nor prodded the way she might have done, had not recent criticisms and a brief media frenzy chastened her toward a consciously bland umpireship.
Governor Palin burnished her “average American” credentials and made a grand show of appealing directly to voters, which in the medium of television meant staring directly into the camera without cease, smiling broadly, and even winking flirtatiously at times. She peppered her comments with folksy expressions such as “gosh darn it” and “well, you know . . . up there in Alaska.” For the most part, she successfully avoided the awkward pauses and lexical monstrosities that characterized her unequivocally bad performances in recent network interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. She offered a few policy “details” to shore up her appearance of preparedness, confidently deploying Ahmadinejad’s name whenever she had the chance, whether the Iranian president was immediately relevant to the discussion or not.
Biden, for his part, was calm, jovial, and exceedingly warm. He watched his tongue carefully, resisting opportunities to attack, and hardly ever engaged his direct counterpart; every policy jab was directed at the absent father, McCain, who in turn became a proxy for the loathsome George W. Bush – safe choices on both accounts. Thus, Biden’s sharpest barbs were often a full two steps removed from the juicy target to his left (stage right), who simply smiled and embraced the event as another opportunity to get to know people: Biden, whom she had just met for the first time but called Joe, and the American people, through the picture tubes and plasma flatscreens of 50 million plus American households. As expected, Senator Biden presented more in the way of details, and leveled a few fresh criticisms of McCain platforms, but overall, he visibly downplayed his expertise and wide knowledge of foreign policy in the favor of a gentlemanly conversation in which “fundamentally different philosophies” were blithely accepted without either the fierce clobbering that many Democrats craved or the gaffe-ridden tirades that his campaign handlers feared. Early in the debate, he shyly pointed out to Ifill that Governor Palin had not answered her question, much as the polite student in the first row reminds an impassioned teacher that the bell has already rung. Even though he might have profited from pressing the issue, Biden seemed to understand that such limits must be tolerated without complaint, and did what he could to balance Palin’s “human narrative” appeals with his own authentic storytelling, blue-collar roots and all. In the end, like that well-meaning but essentially powerless student, he earned credit among his peers for issuing the notice without being able to restore full confidence in the system designed to obviate such reminders.
Although arguably more interesting and lively than the first showdown between their principals Obama and McCain, the Biden-Palin debate was effectively a neutralizer in terms of campaign advancement. Nobody was humiliated, nobody did much damage. Highlights in the colloquy were subtle. Biden took the opportunity to teach viewers an important fact about Iran: the Ayatollahs, not the president, control “the security apparatus” (i.e. the Revolutionary Guard and the non-existent nukes). Ahmadinejad’s spicy rhetoric, which tends to be both deliberately inflammatory and viciously anti-Semitic, as Palin reminded us several times (true to her intensive coaching at the McCain compound), elicits a lot of media attention and U.N. consternation, but has all the real-life force of our own Secretary of Interior’s pronouncements. This minor structural detail holds, of course, immeasurable significance for actual diplomacy and foreign policy, but as many Americans were meant merely to be impressed by Palin’s frequent use of a difficult foreign name and a few tidbits from translated speeches, Biden’s gentle correction of a widespread public misconception went largely unnoticed.
Also subtle but vitally significant was Palin’s early warning to viewers that she might not answer the questions in the way expected by her opponent or her moderator, a bizarre if revealing strategy, which nevertheless went unchallenged. Our leniency in this matter was merely assumed. The substantive link between question and answer is apparently the province of the conformist mainstream, to which Biden and Ifill were instantly condemned by this outrageous disclaimer. Only self-appointed “mavericks,” on the other hand, deal in that “straight talk,” which “the American people are craving.” Lessons in straight talk notwithstanding, Palin twice invoked the name of the commanding general of NATO forces in Afghanistan as McClellan (a former White House Press Secretary perhaps?). Biden visibly registered this error but, per the reigning formula, did not call attention to it; certainly he knows that David McKiernan is the commanding general in question, because, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, it’s his job to know such details not just drop names in televised speeches. It was a minor, forgivable blunder perhaps, and one Palin’s defenders are all too ready to overlook, even as it reveals the shallowness of her competency and preparedness for a role in which mistakes of this variety would embarrass her personally, her would-be boss, and the nation at large. Frankly, we’ve had enough of that kind of thing.
Probably the most sinister subtlety of the conversation emerged from Palin’s response to Ifill’s question about each candidate’s understanding of the vice president’s responsibilities. Without ado, and clearly riding high on the leverage her vast executive experience gives her, the Alaska governor mused – rather too casually for my taste – about a potentially expanded legislative function of the vice president’s office. Apparently, Palin harbors a vague fantasy of basking in Cheney’s legacy of aggrandizement, manipulation, and behind-the-curtains ambition, a prospect that Biden, a career senator with an intimate knowledge of the constitutional separation of powers, was wise to eschew on national TV. This confession, fleeting and brushed aside as it was, too became a pregnant detail of the evening’s faceoff. But subtlety doesn’t play well on television, and in the end what was missing from the debate – sustained argument and precise responses to well-prepared questions – disappeared into the ether of a tightly managed public relations skit, in which all three actors capably acted their assigned roles. And a little over two thirds of the way into this ninety-minute docudrama, one looked at the clock and sighed, grateful merely for the harmless neutrality of the performance but far from enlightened.