The Palin-Biden Vice Presidential Debate: A Pyrrhic Personal Victory for Palin

–Richard E. Vatz

Democrats whetted their whistles. How could the unprepared, error-prone Alaskan Governor, fresh from disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, win a contest even-up with the time-tested Delaware Senatorial veteran? Well, she did better than anyone could reasonable have expected. She did not, however, “win.”

It was like watching an exhibition game between a Major League Baseball team and a minor league team in which the latter had something to prove, but the former was destined to win because, after all, bragging rights just could not go to the pretenders. There was concern that the umpire-moderator, Gwen Ifill, would be unfair, but although she should have recused herself in light of her upcoming book on racial change in America — one with Sen. Barack Obama in the title — she was not a factor in the debate. Still, one would like to have seen at least an addressing of the plagiarism issue that caused Sen. Biden to withdraw from the 1988 presidential race.

Plucky Gov. Sarah Palin came through without any major errors and hit a couple of home runs, but the honest winner of the contest was Sen. Joe Biden. She brought up, as Sen. McCain did in the first Presidential debate, the “surge,” the best example of head-to-head policy competition which was fought on a level playing field and which the Republicans won: the Democratic Presidential and Vice Presidential contenders both opposed this successful military tactic and have never been able – or willing — to rhetorically deal with their mistake. She also may have also scored on her ticket’s emphasis on expanded drilling for new oil, a policy that Democrats have weakly opposed without any alternative other than promoting insufficient new energy sources, which the Republicans support as well.

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But that and the generally confident, ingenuous debating of Gov. Palin could not overcome the knowledgeable, articulate and convincingly passionate Sen. Biden, who had been arguing these issues for decades and had the arguably weak record of a problematic presidential administration to provide the grist for his attacks and promise of “change.” It did not help, parenthetically, that pursuant to Sen. Biden’s charge that the Republican ticket offered no change from President Bush’s administration that Gov. Palin immediately used and overused the president’s mispronunciation of nuclear (“nuculer”).

Biden’s onslaught of attacks was parried by Gov. Palin through her strong support and consistent iteration of her conservative values, but too often she just let points drop. When Biden went through his litany of criticisms of Sen. McCain’s voting record, Gov. Palin was silent. She simply may not, as Governor of Alaska, have been sufficiently familiar with Sen. McCain’s voting record to offer different interpretations. The Senator’s relentless citing of the economic and foreign difficulties hovering over the United States was difficult to overcome by anyone, much less a person out-of-the-loop. Republicans may think this is Gov. Palin’s strong point, but rhetorically it leaves her with a knowledge gap.

In the end some people (this writer, for example), thought that a truly terrible performance could have induced Gov. Palin to voluntarily leave the ticket with a chance that a late, pinch-hitting Kay Bailey Hutchinson or Mitt Romney could somehow have rescued the team. But, alas, Gov. Palin did too well. Anyone who would suggest such a thing would now be seen as unfair, jumping down the throat of a contender who had redeemed herself. Gov. Palin did indeed redeem herself and in the process may have ensured a Democratic victory in November.

Professor Vatz teaches Political Rhetoric at Towson University

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