Friday, October 03, 2008

So Who Won?

Obviously, the pathetic theatrical displays we call "presidential debates" do not have clear winners.  (Or losers, except perhaps for those of us who waste our time watching them and then waste more by discussing them afterwards.)  There is no system of points, no jury or referee to declare a winer.  Just spin.

For our part, we at the Egg cannot imagine how anybody's vote would have been changed by the Vice-Presidential debate last night.  If you liked a candidate going in, you probably liked the same candidate coming out; if you were undecided, then (a) you are probably not very smart, given how clear the differences of policy and temperament are between the principals, but (b) there wasn't much here to help you make a rational decision.

To Biden's credit, he avoided most of the obvious traps.  His answers were comparatively brief, cogent, and without significant error.  He displayed a meaningful grasp of relevant facts, including -- somewhat comically -- the ability to describe Palin's work in Alaska more clearly than she herself.  He did not bully his opponent or seek to discredit her, and directed most of his attention to McCain's policies and voting record.  

Speaking both of McCain and of Palin, Biden was remarkably courteous.  To some observers, this may look like weakness, but it was not.  He avoided appearing cruel to Palin, and by reminding us that he and McCain have been friends and colleagues for many years, he underscored his own experience and gravitas.  Perhaps no less significantly, he maintained the tone of polite reserve which is a mark of Obama's candidacy, and which, even if moderated somewhat in these last weeks, does mark a distinct change in tone from the slash-and-burn political campaigns to which Americans have become accustomed.

Nor did Palin make a fool of herself.  Most of her answers were grammatically clear.  She certainly did evade some questions, and on a couple of occasions her answers made no sense to us at all, particularly when speaking of the things she probably knows best -- her work in Alaska, and relationships with the oil companies.  This is worrisome commentary on the nature of her communication skills.  While she was snippier with Biden than he could afford to be with her, she kept the tone appropriately light.  

But the fact that Palin gave comprehensible answers to most questions doesn't mean that the answers were any good.  Like McCain in his first debate, she tried to turn every question back to tax policy.  We understand that this is a beloved Republican trope, but in a year when the Democrats have a plan that is not only more realistic, but also more favorable to the middle class, we can't see how it could help them.  She fell back on other campaign talking points, often without explaining how they were true:  "McCain knows how to win a war" is our favorite, because it is so clearly false; but also "our opponents don't support the troops," "drilling for oil will support alternative sources of energy;" and the second-most loathsome of the current crop, overuse of the word "maverick."  First most loathsome?  That would be blather about the "media filter" versus "talking straight to the American people," especially when used as an excuse for dodging questions.

Still, Palin did make a remark which, if true, speak well of her.  When asked how to reduce the polarization of our political culture, she immediately responded "appoint people without regard to party."  This would be a remarkable step away from the Bush Administration, provided "people" includes somebody besides Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller.  Alaskan politics, by many accounts, is not deeply partisan, and we wonder what her track record of appointments looks like.  Anybody know?

Still, she also said a few things, not mistakes but apparently reasoned statements, which we found chilling.  On gay rights, she waffled in a way that was clearly designed to please the social conservatives while apparently betraying her own instincts and even track record, when she said that she did not favor extending Alaska's own legal protections to gay people in the rest of the country. (She immediately backtracked, leaving us unsure what she really meant, believes or would do)  

On global warming, she said (and not for the first time; we heard this from her in the Couric interview, almost verbatim) that she wants to look for solutions without talking about causes.  This is a stunningly unscientific approach.  It makes sense only from an ideological position that wants, above everything else, to avoid assigning blame for bad things to one's own party -- the same impulse that led her to chide Biden for pointing out, correctly, that Republican policies have done tremendous damage to America's economy, environment and international prestige.  The problem is that global warming is not a partisan problem, nor one for which ideological responses are remotely appropriate.  If there were any policy issue for which a purely technocratic solution is appropriate, this would be it.

When asked what campaign promises they would need to break in light of changed economic circumstances, and about mistakes they had made, Palin was ludicrous, especially when compared to Biden.  She adopted the sort of "admit nothing" technique that works in a 9th grade classroom debate, but sounds childish from an adult.  Biden, by naming a promise immediately and by (lightly) acknowledging his own weaknesses, sounded far more mature, not to mention credible.

But the one truly chilling moment, for us at least, came when they were asked about the role of the Vice-President. Neither retreated into pure constitutionalism -- "to break ties in the Senate, and check on the President's health."  Both took for granted some of the comparatively recent developments in the job. Biden sees the Veepship as a trusted advisor -- sort of the Gore model, we suppose.  Palin's immediate answer was that the Vice-President actually has more constitutional authority than the job usually gets, a remark that unnerved us.  

When Gwen Ifill followed up with a question about the Cheney office's peculiar contention that the Vice-President is a constitutional anomaly, subject to the rules governing neither the Executive nor the legislative branches, we got scared.  Palin began by saying "it's flexible," never a good approach to the differentiation of roles.  And then, without prompting, she said "So, um, yeah, I do agree with Cheney."  This is seriously bad news, given the deadly mischief that Cheney has worked these past few years, not merely with regard to torture and international law, but also with regard to subverting both Congress and the Presidency.

So who won?  Well, eye of the beholder and all that.  But if America actually winds up with another Dick Cheney in office, defying the laws and the lawmakers, we will all lose.


Gillian said...

The primary document Palin uses to choose staffers is not a list of party affiliation but rather her high school yearbook. For example, she appointed a long-time friend to be Sec'y of Agriculture....qualifications? classmate, and "really likes cows."

Father said...

At least her friend liked cows. Horribly, this is a step up from many Republican executives, who seem to hire people who despise the things over which they are given power -- the environment, justice, regulatory agencies.