Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dreading the Veep Debate

Father Anonymous plans to blog the vice-presidential debate live from the Egg's Mobile Press Headquarters.  That's what we call it when we unplug the laptop and go in by the TV set.

These plans come with more than a little apprehension.  Oh, we have no serious doubt that Joe Biden, with all his flaws, is competent to serve as President should the need arrive.  And likewise, we have no doubt that Sarah Palin, with her good looks and her degree in communications from a series of third-rate universities, is ready to serve as weather girl, at least on a local station.  (Hell, she's an expert -- she can see the weather from her own home.)

So whence the apprehension?  

Well, we all know that Biden is prone both to prolixity (fine under the circumstances; he can run out the clock) and to errors of fact (a serious problem in this environment, where his accumulated knowledge is his strong suit).  So that's a concern.  Not much of one, though; we have seen him do this often enough to predict that he will put in a spirited, competent and yet uninspiring performance

Palin is the wild card.  (1) First of all because the Republicans have been working overtime to manage expectations downward, allowing her to look not merely limited but impossibly dim, and largely hiding her from the press in order to let that impression take hold of the general public.  In our most paranoid moments, we actually think the Couric interview was a deliberate strategy -- as if Steve Schmidt told her to go on camera and say the dumbest things that came into her heard. (2) The result is that, if she manages to speak in complete sentences and tell the truth even once, she is likely to be perceived as a winner.  

(3) They have also been preparing the field for a post-debate assault on moderator Gwen Ifill, by proposing that she is not objective.  After all, she's writing a book on black politics.  Why would somebody do that (reason the Republicans) unless they liked black people best?  And they have actually come out and demanded that she steer away from foreign policy and toward domestic matters, even while no doubt cramming Palin's head with the names of world leaders.

(4) But our most significant reason for expecting a surprisingly good performance from Palin is -- don't laugh -- that she is a former beauty queen.  Admit it, you've seen the YouTube video (and click up top if you missed it).  The pageant world does not call for Oxford Union intellectual prowess, but it does demand a combination of, on one hand, brutal aggression disguised as ladylike composure and, on the other hand, the ability to give brief, memorable responses to random questions.

The presidential "debates" to which we have become accustomed are often fairly limp exchanges of company-issue policy talking points.  They are not an environment where either facts or new ideas are meaningfully introduced, or where truth and falsehood are determined by any objective sources.  This means that zingers -- "my opponent's youth an inexperience," "you're no Jack Kennedy" -- are often the only things that viewers carry away.  They are, in other words, a playing field on which a statesman and a beauty queen can conceivably compete as equals.  Terrifying, no?

And another thing:  We'll be watching for what has become the McCain team's signature move -- as SNL said, "what in my campaign we call a 'stunt' or a 'gimmick.'"  From the choice of Palin to the campaign "suspension" to the call for a spending moratorium, McCain's own stunts have become increasingly trite and decreasingly effective.  But it is entirely possible that Palin has been coached to employ a stunt of her own.  

What will it be?  She may well point an accusing finger at Biden, even leaving her podium to do it.  Remember when hen Rick Lazio did it to Hillary Clinton, and was accused of bullying?  Biden will be in a trap: if he responds to  Palin the way he would to the same sort of schoolyard shenanigans from a man, he will look churlish; if he doesn't respond, he may look weak.  She might drop none-too-subtle hints about his brain aneurysms, or even aspersions on his mental health (since most Americans won't know the difference).

She might -- just might -- try to play a very heavily veiled anti-Catholic card.  Oh, we're past the point in history where would accuse him of being a papal lackey.  But she might very well highlight differences between his public policies and the teachings of his church, especially on abortion.  That one isn't even unfair, exactly; it's just hard to respond to.   He can't very well say, "I would show how my opponent's policies differ from those of her church, except that she has kept changing churches her whole life, and doesn't presently belong to one."  People stop listening after the first comma.

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