Friday, October 3, 2008

VP Debate: For Biden

I was kind of afraid Biden and the democrats were going to lose the expectations game; like Aaron Sorkin wrote about his fictional president debate, it really felt like the only way Biden was going to unequivocally win was if Sarah Palin "accidentally lights [her] podium on fire". Because "if the whole thing is [she] can't tie [her] shoes and it turns out [she] can', then that is the ball game" (Sorkin again!). Well, Sarah Palin can tie her shoes. She didn't light her podium on fire. She spoke in complete sentences, though I wish she'd dial back that "folksy charm", because it has turned into folksy charm on steroids - or a stage performance of folksy charm instead of the real thing. But I still think Biden did a wonderful job, and I would posit that he won the debate.

Sarah Palin was on, but she still annoyed me. It wasn't anything she could really help; but it is something that has bothered me in regard to other women politicians. And that is the need to be Tour Guide Barbie. She was incredibly smiley, incredibly saccharine. She showed more of a range of emotion than many women who step up to the podium. She was allowed to be serious and let that smile drop. But she also gave me pause when she talked about John McCain, the great reformer (for everything else John McCain is, "reform" isn't exactly a word that springs to mind when he's mentioned); and she gave me more pause when, after talking about how we needed regulation, she started the old republican talking point about how government is not the solution to our problems but the source of our problems. She was not surprisingly nonspecific, and she played to the idea of McCain the Maverick - something I was happy to see Joe Biden challenge her on. There was something else that bothered me tonight about Palin, and that was her insistence of including oil and oil drilling in with alternative energy. I could be wrong, but I always thought alternative energy meant energy derived from things other than fossil fuels.

There were times when she did well, I won't deny her that. I almost feel sorry for her, having to defend a candidate who, like Biden hammered home, just 2 weeks ago said the fundamentals of our economy are strong, and who has in the past admitted to not knowing much about the economy. I felt for her when she substituted McClellan for McKiernan. I felt for her because it was an obvious screw up that had no bearing on whether or not she knew what she was talking about. It was kind of like Joe Biden's earlier remark (a remark he quickly corrected) about a six month timetable for leaving Iraq. Joe caught his mistake mid-sentence; Palin did not have that luck. And that was too bad for her, because those actual little gaffes are to be expected and the fact that mix up will (and has already) gotten some attention is unfortunate. There was a moment, and I really wish I could remember it now and what was said, when I thought she hit it straight out of the ballpark. Of course, then she repeated this:
In a few weeks, you'll have the choice of voting for a ticket that wants to create jobs, and bolster the economy and win the war...
I desperately wanted some pithy remark from Biden like, "So you'll be voting for us then?" Because Sarah Palin didn't explain John McCain's position on taxes very well. She didn't explain how her camp planned on bolstering the economy. She had nothing to come back with when Biden said that most small business owners actually make less than 250 thousand dollars a year in income and so Obama's tax plan wouldn't affect them. And I thought Joe Biden did a better job on the war in Iraq and our timetable for leaving than she did. When she told him that he was "waving a white flag of defeat", I sat up straight. I was kind of relieved to see that response garner an immediate drop in approval from CBS' instant independent poll people. The ticket Sarah Palin described in the quote above was, to me, the Obama campaign (I think the first one of those repeats had a mention of tax cuts as well).

The only real issue I had, and I'll probably come back to it at some later time, was that one of the independent women voters interviewed afterward who said Sarah Palin did well said that she thought so because Sarah Palin was like an ordinary person. That Palin made the woman being interviewed feel like she could have been up there on that stage. I froze. If there is one argument I cannot stand, it is the "She makes me feel like she's just a regular person, like me!" way of voting. I don't really want my candidates to reflect me. I don't want them to make me feel that I could be up there behind that podium. There is a reason they are behind that podium and why I am sitting on my couch watching them. They are supposed to be smarter than I am, more aware of the issues than I am, and more capable than I am. I am not qualified to be vice-president, even if it is the John Nance Garner "not worth a pitcher of warm piss" type vice-presidency. So I would really prefer it if my candidate gave me the feeling like s/he understood me and where I stood on the issues, but was more qualified and more capable of smartly deciding how to implement the necessary changes on those issues. I had hoped we were over the "like me" way of voting -at least in this sense- after 8 years of President Bush. But I guess I was wrong.

Overall, Palin's performance had little to do with Joe Biden's performance; I loved his pithy "bridge to nowhere" comment. I enjoyed his references to the pieces of legislation he had passed. Pat Buchanan may not like the facts and statistics way of Biden's style (as he said tonight on MSNBC), but I thought his specific examples of his own legislation and positions and the counts of how many times McCain voted on policies contrary to what would help the American people (and how McCain voted against the same legislation meant to fund the troops as Obama did) offered a stark contrast to Palin's lack of specifics. It made him seem more aware and more knowledgeable and more on top of things than Palin was. But perhaps my favorite moment was when Biden said that Dick Cheney's vice-presidency has been the most destructive we've ever had, and his belief that the vice-presidency somehow is a part of the legislature is "bizarre". It has been too long since I've heard the word "bizarre" come out of anyone's mouth in a serious moment. I loved how he gave specific mention of what the vice-president's duties were as dictated by the constitution. I suppose it may be hypocritical of me to enjoy the Democrats' strict interpretation of the Constitution when their usual role is to defend its position as a 'living' and changing document when I am so appalled at the Republicans' recent insistence on enjoying the latitude the Constitution offers the position of the vice-presidency and thus using a less than strict interpretation of the document when conservatives are usually about strict interpretations. When Palin said that she saw the vice-president as being able to take an active role in the Senate, I almost wanted someone to make her sit down and watch HBO's John Adams -not all of the hours, of course; just the ones in which he was ridiculed for expanding his powers of the vice-presidency too far in that regard.

But for me, the most emotional moment of the night, and the moment in which I thought Joe Biden really succeeded in removing the air from Sarah Palin's populist lungs was when he choked up discussing the deaths of his wife and daughter.

In that moment, I don't know how one person watching could not be moved, and could not believe that Joe Biden actually did know about their own fears and trials and tragedies, that he could relate to them on more than just a superficial "We're not those East Coast political people" level. It was the most moving moment of the night, because it was the most sincere. The problem with Sarah Palin's "oh shucks, I'm just an ordinary hockey mom and I am so much more like you than that guy" is that it seems like a glossy veneer, that what connects Palin to those people is more about superficial notions of the "working class" and what they are like and the prejudices they have against those who are educated and those who rattle off numbers and those who - Heaven forbid - actually had ambitions in running for office. But those similarities only skim the surface; and although she said she and McCain are interested in breaking down partisan politics, that tactic is about conflating the unimportant differences between people into a very attack on identity. What Joe Biden did there was to allow for the humanity of the moment to reach across party lines and to truly demonstrate that maybe being a Senator for 36 years does not distance a man from the rigors of every day life. That maybe getting an elite education at one of the top universities in the country does not in actuality make a person an elitist. That maybe, the test for whether or not a person is like someone else should not be confused with whether or not that person talks in the same manner or buys the same style clothing or if they grew up in a small town but the ideas and thoughts and feelings that person carries.

Biden won. Palin did well; she didn't light the podium on fire, she can tie her shoes, she didn't fall off of the stage, and she spoke in complete and cogent sentences. She was greatly helped by the specter of low expectation. Even with all of that, Biden still won.


John said...

I was going to construct a response on Palin's behalf, full of "gosh darn"s and "doggone"s and "nuke-you-lar"s, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

Watching Biden in the debate felt like watching a professional athlete compete in the special olympics. Sure, Palin managed to prove that she hasn't suffered severe brain damage since her Alaska Gubernatorial debates, but she wasn't actually sparring with Biden to any real extent. She trash-talked him and dismissed his facts, but was hesitant to bring up evidence to support her dismissals or the claims of her own (and when she did, Biden shut them down too!) I also enjoyed the fact that her descriptions of the McPalin ticket were torn wholesale from the Obaden(?) ticket. Do they really think we can't tell the difference?

One last thing: If I can possibly avoid it for the rest of my life, I will NEVER vote for a candidate that uses the non-word "nuke-you-lar!" It seems that without her teleprompter writing "new-clear", she reverts back to the GOP-approved pronunciation of the word, presumably because it emphasises "nuke you."

mikhailbakunin said...

This is ridiculous. Sara Palin clearly won with her folksy acumen and her winks of brutality. As a voter, I really moved when she explained that she wasn't going to answer the moderator's questions, and was instead going to knock Biden off his game with a series of powerful non-sequiturs.

That's decisive leadership.

(On a serious but unrelated note, you may find this explanation of why Andrew Sullivan sees Thatcher as a feminist icon more illuminating.)

Habladora said...

I'm continuously appalled at how well the 'just like you, assuming you're sorta dumb' tactic works in these United States. I don't honestly think we're less intelligent than people in other democratic nations, but I do think we're less informed. Where do I cast the blame for that though - on the media? On a culture of anti-intellectualism? I agree with Biden that an important starting point in solving a problem is understanding its cause - so what's causing us to vote for idiots?