Friday, October 03, 2008

Doggone debatable

Unlike my friend Andrew, I decided to not wake up at 3am to catch the debate live. It may be that I lack his passion for politics.

It may be that I am, fundamentally, a lazy man.

On the other hand, it might just be that I was in no hurry to expose myself to the continuing national embarrassment that is Sarah Palin. All in good time, I thought, it's a holiday here in Germany, and there's no rush.

By about mid-day today I was ready to subject myself to the most anticipated vice-presidential debate...well, ever, as far as I can tell. I viewed it at the New York Times, which has a handy interactive transcript and built-in fact-checker.

It went pretty much as I expected. Before going to bed last night, I had thought that I might post a prediction that most of today's commentary on the debate would contain the words 'surprisingly good' with regard to Palin's performance. I never got around to it, but that seems to be largely the tone of things. As I suspected, she didn't quite ditz out like she did in the pre-debate interviews. She was certainly helped along by a debating format that allowed her to more or less get away with spouting some well-rehearsed talking points in convenient 90-second bites.

Conservative pundit Kathleen Parker (who has taken some pretty amazing heat from fellow right-wingers for daring to suggest that Palin might be out of her depth) surely spins Palin's performance in far-too-favourable terms in a post-debate evaluation at the Washington Post, but there is something to her comment that,

I had the uneasy feeling throughout that I was witnessing a data dump from a very appealing droid. Even the winks and jaw juts seemed slightly programmed.

In any case, I think that mentioning 'a kid's soccer game' within ten seconds of a debate on the serious issues facing the nation and the world was hardly encouraging.

I mean, how transparent is her populist posing supposed to get?

All in all, Palin had a fairly floundering beginning: not only did she draw attention to McCain's stupid suspension-of-the-campaign stunt (do you really want to remind people of that, Sarah? That was a pretty bad week for your campaign, remember?), she also once again trotted out that lame explanation about how McCain's comment on the 'fundamentals' of the economy being strong was really his special way of lavishing praise on American workers.

But, of course, we're not dealing with a normal person, we're dealing with a maverick! And not just a maverick, but a whole 'team of mavericks'!

(I sincerely hope there were some people with the foresight to turn the debate into a drinking game: you could've gotten pretty toasted pretty quickly taking a shot at every utterance of the word 'maverick'. You could have done much the same by taking a drink when Palin tacked on that strange 'also' at the end of what seemed like every other sentence. I would hate to think that the college students of America, whatever their party affiliations, would have missed an opportunity to get, like, totally hammered while also participating in, ya know, politics and stuff.)

Not only did we find out that Sarah'n'John are chock full of mavericky maverickness, we learned that they have become, as she put it, 'Known for putting partisan politics aside'. This would come across a bit more convincing if it wasn't so clear that Palin has a long history of using political power to pursue personal vendettas.

Anyway, by this point, I think we were barely a half hour or so into the debate, but it was about then that I started feeling a bit queasy. This always happens when I have to listen to Republicans not only complain about greedy companies but also demand 'strict oversight' of the economy while at the same time still managing to fit in the argument that government is The Main Problem We Face.

This was matched by the rhetorical contortions Palin went through in trying to argue assertively that people should be responsible for living within their means and take lessons from the current crisis while simultaneously avoiding any suggestion that average people take any blame for the current economic woes.

'Predatory companies' should be stopped, she says...but...wouldn't this involve regulation...which she says is bad? How does this fit together? Does anyone care?

Of course, as with her recent assertions regarding the 'right to privacy', it might be that she doesn't really understand what she's talking about.

There were a few times when our appealing little droid either stumbled over the mass of data that had been planted in her head and was struggling to get out, out, OUT! or when she had to drift a bit from her memorised script.

The result were the (more-than-usual) meandering answers to what (as a governor) you would think she would have something real to talk about: such as energy and education.

'I don't want to argue about the causes,' she said of global warming, reminding us (again) that she was from the most northern state, as if this gave her automatic authority on the issue. (Like Russia, perhaps, she can see the Arctic Circle from her house...) While correcting Biden on the precise rallying cry often heard at her 'ticket's' rallies ('ticket' was another word she repeated endlessly...another good drinking-game trigger word...) --  i.e., 'Drill baby drill' -- she beamed with what seemed like pride. This is your energy policy?

On education....well, I don't know what she meant. Other than, perhaps, suggesting that she knows a lot of teachers (and that all good schoolteachers go to heaven, was that a weird comment or what??)...what did she say?

It was also somewhat amusing to watch Palin talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while trying to exude an air of actually knowing what she was talking about, and her words did indeed tumble out in something resembling a vaguely grammatical order.

I was most surprised, though, by her closing statement -- which you would think would have been something for which she had prepared most assiduously. However, it was one of the more incoherent sections of the whole evening, what with that 'fighting for freedom', 'one generation away from extinction', 'sunset years' stuff.

It's difficult to know what to say about Biden's performance, other than he demonstrated clearly that he's an experienced, thoughtful politician who, doggone it, knows stuff.

I think, though, that he did much better than Andrew gives him credit for. He frequently pointed out directly when Palin distorted his record or Obama's, he managed to keep his answers quite brief and to the point, and he was relentless about tying McCain-Palin to the lead-like dead weight that is the Bush administration.

He did this without coming across as condescending or being 'mean' to Palin (which shouldn't matter but we know it does) or sounding like a pointy-headed Washington insider.

His biting comments on Cheney were an example: they were passionate and although he mentioned 'Article I of the Constitution' his answer never drifted into legalese. Particularly toward the end, over the last half hour or so, Biden came on strong. While a lot of foreign viewers might have wondered about their repeated references to kitchen tables, I think Biden was successful in bringing across a real connection with average voters. For all her vaunted down-home stylings -- oddly enough -- it was Palin whose appeals to ordinariness seemed...somehow strained. Like her relentless smile, which -- combined with her casual tone ('Drill, baby, drill'...) -- made it seem like she didn't quite take all this seriously enough.

East-coast, lib'rul, Communist, Euroweenie that I am, I am aware that what I think of this event is not going to be representative of what most 'real Americans' think of it. However, initial polls seem to show that while Palin did better than most people expected (she could, let's face it, hardly have done otherwise), most seem to think she lost.

The right-wing will, however, undoubtedly jump on the bandwagon of proclaiming that Palin 'rose to the challenge' or 'turned it around' or whatever. And, you know, if they want to make themselves feel better that way, they can.

And, like a broken clock that still tells the correct time twice a day, Palin managed a few accurate statements. 'Diplomacy', she observed, 'is hard work by serious people'.

This is true.

But much the same could be said of the rest of the work of governing a country.

And it involves more than memorising a few talking points.

You betcha!


Good commentary, as usual, from Dale:

As Sarah Palin did not collapse into a fetal position and soil herself, she exceeded expectations. She sounded her robot lines as a well-programmed robot will do. It should be remembered that we are setting expectations for and evaluating the person who might become the US president as of January 2009, so however proud we might be of Sarah Palin the person for not collapsing and self-soiling, we can and should recognize that this personal victory against the ravages of Gwen Ifill's somnolent moderating does not translate to readiness for a world stage that features, among other things, nuclear weapons, climate crises, and overstressed financials.

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