03 October 2008

My VP Debate Analysis

I know some of my friends are going to think me an idiot, but this is what I got out of last night's VP debate: (I wrote this last night as a Facebook note, so I've just reproduced it here) This evening was the Vice-Presidential Debate between Governor Sarah Palin (R) and Senator Joseph Biden (D). While a lot of people on Facebook and in the mainstream media are quick to point out who "won" the debate, most people who aren't super-political don't really know what "winning a debate" entails. From my few years being actively involved with politics and the many debates I've watched and analyzed with my friends and colleagues, I wanted to share my thoughts on the Biden-Palin debate. Disclaimer: All opinions and statements are my own and are not necessarily indicative of support for any candidate or campaign. All statements are subjective in nature and are not meant to be a comprehensive description of what to look for in a political debate, but rather guidelines for watching and understanding. Finally, please do not reproduce the writing herein contained unless done so in a full and unabridged format with my name as citation. All quotes used below are from CNN.com's debate transcript. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- First, it is important to discern in any type of political conversation what the goal of the discourse is for each party or person. What objective does each person have to attain to consider their night a "win" and claim victory? In the Presidential debate of a few nights ago, Senator McCain's objective was to both make himself look and sound new and exciting and to display his extensive set of knowledge on foreign policy matters, and Senator Obama's goal was to try to be able to show the public that he could hold his own against McCain in foreign policy. Tonight, Governor Palin's challenge was to (1) make up for the poor showing in interviews that she recently had with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric and (2) to reconnect with the independent voters and the Republican base that she excited during the Republican convention but whom have of late been seeing her as a liability to McCain's campaign. Senator Biden's big challenge was simply not to "put his foot in his mouth" while talking. Obviously, Governor Palin had the bigger challenge. How did each candidate do in meeting their goals? Governor Palin was bold in many of her statements, at times was downright "folksy," and often aimed at connecting specifically with middle-class America. She upheld Senator McCain as a maverick and a strong leader, and stuck to straightforward Republican talking points on most of the issues. Overall, I think she probably accomplished most of what she was going for in terms of message and interpersonal relations with the people sitting in their La-Z-Boys watching the debate. Senator Biden, as pretty much any pundit will tell you on tomorrow's morning news, achieved his goal of not committing any "gaffes" during the debate, and did his job as the VP candidate of both strongly supporting his candidate while pointing out the flaws of Senator McCain and Governor Palin and making himself look like he is ready to take over for Obama should anything happen. The second thing to pay attention to in the debates is the quality of their responses. Candidates' answers should be within the time limits prescribed by the moderator, be relatively understandable for an average person, and should seek to answer the questions presented. In this regard, my opinion is that Senator Biden won hands down. He spoke fairly concisely throughout each question, addressed the question at hand, and didn't spend the whole time pandering. From the very first question about the bailout bill "was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw..." Senator Biden first answered the question - "I think it's neither the best or worst of Washington, but it's evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we've ever had" - and then discussed how to fix the problem through Obama's four basic criteria for his ideal version of a rescue plan. Governor Palin, on the other hand, using the same question, said "I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America's economy, is go to a kid's soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'How are you feeling about the economy'" and began talking about McCain being the agent of reform, but not addressing the problem. In at least one instance, the Governor was stopped mid-sentance by the moderator for exceeding the time limitations, and in several instances, she failed to address the questions at all, instead telling the moderator during a question on a bankruptcy bill, "I want to talk about, again, my record on energy versus your ticket's energy ticket." I think that what Governor Palin was attempting to do was to bring the debate into areas she felt comfortable with, like energy policy, but by not at least giving some consideration to the question at hand before attacking Senators Biden and Obama, she came across to me as both erratic and inexperienced on a lot of issues, specifically ones relating to foreign policy and economic policy. Senator Biden was the complete mirror image of that, being articulate on the issues, showing his depth of experience on everything from foreign policy to energy. Even their appeals to the "average" American show a stark contrast: while Palin mentioned several times throughout the evening that she "had been there" living paycheck-to-paycheck and having no health insurance, Biden showed a human side in the tone of his voice that people not familiar with politics may not have seen before (let's face it, the mainstream media paints that guy as a wacko liberal nut job out of touch with non-East Coast elites): "Look, I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if your kid's going to make it." The third point to watch for is the style of the speakers' remarks. It's often been cited in contemporary election politics that the way a person looks or sounds can be as influential to some people as what they are saying. John F. Kennedy being one example, in his television debates with Richard Nixon, Kennedy looked young, fresh, and energetic, while Nixon was cited as looking "sick" and sounding "gravelly." Many politicos also say that those televised debates "had a profound impact on the 1960 election" in part due to the stylistic differences between the two. Tonight, Senator Biden was smooth, polished, and looked like... well, a politician. His answers were practiced, though not "canned," and as was mentioned before, free of major gaffes or foot-in-mouth statements. He also looked confident at his podium, like he had been there many times before and it was natural now for him (which it probably is). Governor Palin in contrast looked very good at the podium, and though this was her first national stage to debate her opponents, she did display a lot of confidence and poise. That's not to say she was perfect, though, as several times during the debate, she appeared a bit flustered, stammered through some of her talking points on foreign policy questions, and at times during questions which were more difficult for her to answer because of a lack of experience in the subject matter she seemed to rock back and forth at the podium giving the impression of indecisivness and of being uncomfortable. Another style point I personally disliked about Governor Palin had to do with her syntax and speaking style. In the beginning of the debate, I felt it was fine for her to be droppin' her G's and speakin' like a reg'lar American with the "heckuva" and "Heaven forbid" and "Say it ain't so, Joe," but after a short while, it simply became annoying, and I was waiting for her to start speaking professionally. During the past eight years, the President of the United States was criticized incessantly for his speaking style. If our next Vice-President sounds like a 16-year old high school teenager, is that any better? Finally, the fun stuff to look for: (1) who had the best line of the night, (2) who had the strongest line of the night, (3) who committed the biggest mistake, and (4) what I like to call the WTF?! moments. I make a distinction, as you can see, between the "best" line of the night - the line that is the funniest, zings the most, or produces the biggest crowd reaction - with the "strongest" line of the night: the line which I felt stood out the most in terms of displaying the confidence of the candidate. Governor Palin won both 1 and 2. (1) Governor Palin definitely had the best one-liner of the night:
Moderator Ifill: Governor, you said in July that someone would have to explain to you exactly what it is the vice president does every day. You, senator, said you would not be vice president under any circumstances.... What it is you think the vice presidency is worth now? PALIN: In my comment there, it was a lame attempt at a joke and yours was a lame attempt at a joke, too, I guess, because nobody got it.
This one-line zinger right at Senator Biden both made me laugh the hardest and got the biggest reaction from the crowd (which was silent for pretty much everything else). By contrast, Biden's best one-liner was certainly with regard to healthcare, "So you're going to have to place -- replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere." (2) Governor Palin also had what I consider the strongest line of the night when she said in response to a question about whether either ticket would have trouble keeping their campaign promises, "I don't believe that John McCain has made any promise that he would not be able to keep, either." (3) Neither side really made any mistakes, as I've said before. However, Senator Biden did make a number of good decisions when choosing not to entrap himself in Governor Palin's attacks. If he had done so, the way Biden is in extemporaneous speaking when he gets heated, he could have really come across very badly for Obama. I would speculate that his pre-debate preparation included some tips for ignoring the character attacks by Palin and working on correcting factual mistakes instead to avoid his sometimes-wacky temperment. (4) WTF?! moments are any moment that sticks out in your head as a "did they say that" moment. For example, while speaking, Governor Palin called Senator Biden "O'Biden" which I can only assume was a slip of the tongue as she attempted not to say Obama. Senator Biden stood out for not literally saying literally every third literal sentence, literally like he did in his first joint appearance with Senator Obama. Governor Palin was certainly channelling that day though, as she "also" way more often than she should have been, which stuck out as badly as "like" and "you know" did in junior high school. Finally, something that I noticed that most others wouldn't have thought twice about was that Palin referred to the US commanding General in Afghanistan as "General McClellan" when it's actually General McKiernan. Last, but not least, I look at the format of the debate itself. In the Presidential debate of last Friday, the format was pretty open, with questions being followed by nine minutes of essentially open time for the candidates to respond to one another without being roped in by time limitations on their responses. They played off of some another rather than off of the moderator, which I really enjoyed. In tonight's debate, candidates had five minutes per question split up into one- and two-minute segments, meaning that the candidates' responses had to be by nature more rehearsed and less fluid. Personally, I'd be all for a re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglass debates, but in the TV soundbite era, I doubt that will ever happen. Summary: In my four main criteria for looking at a debate - candidates' goals, quality of responses, style, and "fun stuff" - I think that on an even platform, Senator Biden easily won. He was smooth, somewhat polished, poignent, concise, and looked Vice-Presidential. Governor Palin looked charming, poised, and supportive of John McCain, but was also much more erratic, uncertain of herself, and looked somewhat uncomfortable in some subjects. While Palin definitely had the best and strongest lines of the night, Biden did himself and Senator Obama a favor by not taking the bait on some of Palin's attacks and slip-ups. If you take into account the theory that the platform tonight was not even, however, meaning that while the bar for Biden was set at a normal height, Governor Palin's was set much lower as she is a newcomer into national politics and has really only been "in the spotlight" for a month or so, Governor Palin did equally as well as Biden in most categories. I hope for the debates on October 7th and 15th between Senator McCain and Senator Obama that some of my readers will come away with a better sense of what I, at least, look for in a debate, and come to your own conclusions about what makes a "winner" versus a "loser" of each!

1 comment:

  1. Hey, you'd be proud of me: I noticed the "McClellan" line too! I thought it was a good debate overall, but a bit overhyped, really.