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October 3rd, 2008
05:35 PM ET

What the Palin-Biden debate really told us

Carl Bernstein
AC360° Contributor

Who won the Palin-Biden debate? Barack Obama, I suspect.

Who was the big loser? In an historic fortnight that had already underscored his erratic nature, John McCain.

The fact that Palin was able to string her sentences together last night – which she couldn’t manage to do in her unscripted interviews with Katie Couric - shows only how low McCain has strapped his presidential quest.

Sarah Palin’s task was an impossible one: to demonstrate that she is ready to be president of the United States. McCain put her in that impossible position; and her performance — all prep and no depth — demonstrated the bind he has put himself in.

Yes, he “energized the base” with his Hail Mary pick of Palin as a running mate. But he also demonstrated cynical disregard for the requirement of stable governance were he to be elected president, and then - through his incapacitation or death - Palin be called upon to exercise the powers of the presidency.

Just how scary a notion that is went on full display last night: She appeared to lack any semblance of the requisite depth, knowledge, or sense of history we should expect in a president or vice president; then she sought to excuse it by saying, “I’ve only been at this for five weeks.”

Yes, she could wink, she could tell Biden, “Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again,” and she could remind us again and again that she is a hockey Mom from the land of Joe-Six-pack (as if Western Republicans don’t swill Pinot Grigio with the rest of the country at their fund-raisers). She seemed incapable of thinking through the American condition and responding to it except by scripted answers, theatrical gestures, and tested buzzwords — and by announcing at the outset that she would decide which questions from the moderator to answer and which to ignore.

Yet Biden’s performance (deeply knowledgeable, sensible, and generally responsive to the questions) was perhaps the best evidence that - considered non-ideologically, but rather on judgment and temperament — Obama may be ready to be president, and McCain — who ought to be ready — is not.

Time after time, Biden had to tell Palin what John McCain’s real record is - as instance after instance - she misrepresented it (or misunderstood the legislative process), repeated easy slogans and bromides and, for the most part perhaps, offended the intelligence of voters who are not already die-hard, ideological proponents of right-wing Republicanism, creationism, or simplistic solutions to tough problems.

“Maverick,” “Maverick,” “Maverick,” she kept repeating about John McCain and herself. Perhaps Biden’s best moment in the best night of his career as a candidate (and I have heard him at his awful worst — i.e., being his own worst enemy) came when he challenged McCain’s constant claim to the Maverick title.

The tactical and intellectual deficiencies of the McCain campaign have been best analyzed by conservative and Republican commentators, and even politicians. George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, Chuck Hagel, come quickly to mind. (Hence, Krauthammer, following last night’s debate: “You can't blame McCain. In an election in which all the fundamentals are working for the opposition, he feels he has to keep throwing long in order to keep hope alive. Nonetheless, his frenetic improvisation has perversely [for him] framed the rookie challenger favorably as calm, steady and cool.”)

As a former White House (Republican) chief of staff said to me, “Palin is evidence of desperation; she is an embarrassment.” That is the bottom line. (I generally check in with Republicans — not Democrats - to assess how the McCain campaign is doing.) He noted, “She wasn’t vetted, really; it’s an open secret in Washington, but the details of the negligence are better known to Republicans than Democrats.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a future in the Republican galaxy, lacks star power, or couldn’t be a fine Secretary of the Interior in a McCain administration.

It’s too bad. Earlier in his career, until the presidency finally seemed within his grasp, McCain had demonstrated a real willingness to seriously and thoughtfully take on both his party and the Washington establishment when he thought they were wrong — albeit mostly on one issue: pork, an issue he has been heroic on.

But his real opportunity to show independence of his party’s reigning dogma and cultural-warrior-infantry was in his choice of a vice presidential running mate. Instead, McCain, who has lectured us about duty, honor, country first, has left many independent-minded voters who might want to vote for him at an impossible, dangerous impasse: an unprepared vice presidential candidate running on a ticket with the oldest presidential nominee in history — a 72-year-old with four cancer surgeries and medical records he has ordered sealed.

Conventional wisdom has almost always held (JFK-LBJ being a notable exception) that a presidential nominee’s choice of vice president makes no difference in the outcome of the election.

This time it is likely to be determinate, because it tells us so much not only about Sarah Palin, but also John McCain’s state of mind today, and the promise that his political career once held and now appears to have been left behind.


Filed under: Barack Obama • Carl Bernstein • Joe Biden • John McCain • Raw Politics • Sarah Palin
soundoff (115 Responses)
  1. Nina

    I think you're right on. I really don't get who is impressed by Palin's so-called folksy-ness. I think it's contrived and down right insulting. It seems that both she and McCain think that her overwhelming charm will eclipse the obvious fact that she lacks the intelligence and thoughtfulness (nevermind experience) to be VP. Biden schooled her at every level and to think otherwise is just a fantasy.

    October 6, 2008 at 11:17 am |
  2. lorrie mahar

    she don't know what she is doing, and if she wants to run with the big dog then she sould be treated like a big dog and not a puppy.

    October 6, 2008 at 10:15 am |
  3. Jason, Rochester Hills, MI

    She is a maverick like Mr.Ed was a hippopotamus. I also use my ass as a typwriter also. She is a pathetic, last ditch effort by McFossil and his crew to keep living on the bankroll of their campaign contributors. They are certainly not making a meaningful contribution to the process! Self proclaimed mavericky mavericks ought to be more mavericky when announcing their maverickness to a maverick hungry mass of maverick fans that seek such a sincere level of maverick-like maverickness also. Oh, I may not answer questions the way Americans want me to if elected but I can see Russia on a globe at the library, and also...and maverick too, also.

    I cannot wait to hear that line on tape from a NATO summit where she is quoted on global media!

    October 6, 2008 at 4:45 am |
  4. Nate

    Say it ain't So Joe, Sara Palin and John McCain can save the Tax payers even more money by simply Conceding to Oboma now. Their is no possable chance that they can pull their campaign within a close competative race with a chance of winning short of an Act of some Devin Power. Do the math Joe, Its Insane to throw away millions of dollors buying TV adds that will only lead to utter embarisment for the McCain campaign. Go home Joe-McCain, you had a good fight but you lost the war. Oboma will be the next President of the United States of America.

    October 6, 2008 at 4:27 am |
  5. Debra Vernier

    If we haven't become aware yet that character matters, then we deserve what we get in November. Candidates from inside Washington are groomed to say what we want to hear.Including McCain. Sarah Palin hasn't yet had time to owe favors to unscrupulous lobbyist and wealthy businessmen.So she isn't polished yet on handling the media, she has shown good judgement so far in her governing of the state of Alaska and her personal life, in my opinion, Obama on the other hand, has shown poor judgement in many of those who he chooses to associate with. Character and good morals matter most to me. An intelligent person, as Sarah has shown herself to be,can easily ask questions and learn,unlike most leaders in politics .

    October 6, 2008 at 12:25 am |
  6. ricardo

    The writer summed up the situation pretty acurately. I am in the Caribbean and looking at Ms Palin makes me feel that America is falling from grace. We all look up to America and it hurts very much to see Ms Palin being offered as a candidate to lead this great nation. If Mc Cain wanted a female he certainly could have found someone better. Is this what being a maverick is all about? No. this is wrecklessness.

    October 6, 2008 at 12:16 am |
  7. Rosalind Jackson

    Both Presidents Bush and Clinton began their terms as relatively youthful looking gentlemen but they aged visibly during their tenure. Considering the pressure of the office, McCain may not make it – WHAT THEN!??? I’ve been called “the older lady” myself so there’s no bias here against age. The thought of SarahPalin as President scares me to death!
    Secondly, why doesn’t someone start asking Mrs.-Hockey-Mom-Pitt-Bull-with-lipstick what her views are on civil rights and racial diversity and equality. I understand that the debate moderator’s questions needed to be somewhat restrained due to claims of potential bias because of her book but someone PLEASE ask these questions – when she’s not scripted – surprise her!

    October 5, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  8. John

    IPalin is one slick politician, and she is a politician, you don't get to where she is by being little miss main street. If you think otherwise then they have a good deal on a bridge in NYC, you can buy.
    Now as the McCain camp will go to the last chapter of the Rove play book and go negative. ( Like his role model said, lie big enough and long enough and they will believe it . SWIFT BOAT 101) We will see the other side of Sister Sarah, the not insider insider. What is sad is that the media will put the fuel in the boats for them if they do go negative and you will hear nothing of Keating 5 , Westbrook Pegler and others in the McCain brain trust who they both seem to quote a lot..

    October 5, 2008 at 9:28 pm |
  9. John

    Sounds like Shane is the proverbial sucker born every minute. Mrs. Palin is every bit as much a politician as the next guy. She might be new to the big league, but if you buy into that not an insider, then i know where you can get a good deal on the Brooklyn Bridge. Folksy charm is a nice tactic, but quoting James Westbrook Peglen kind of should let you know why she did not respond to the question asked earlier in the week, What do you read? I think she is masking views so far right that Rove must be ecstatic and filled with glee. The brian of Cheny in a womans body with the heart of Rove. Diabolical.
    Sarah is one heck of a used snow machine saleslady.

    October 5, 2008 at 9:16 pm |
  10. Lisa

    Whatever happened to government for the people and by the people? We do not need someone 30 years of experience in politics. We need someone who is intelligent, honest and surrounded by others who know how to do their jobs. I don't care if Palin or Obama lack "experience" in Washington. This article disgusts me with it's bias against Palin. I think she did very well. Biden sounds great when he's just throwing out statements as facts that are totally inaccurate. He just makes things up and few people call him on it. Read the transcripts. What's the deal?

    October 5, 2008 at 9:10 pm |
  11. LARA LOGAN

    I am truly appalled,Sarah Palin should be forced to retract her "terrorist" comment, she is beyond words, first she misquoted Albright now she is dredging up this "vietnam terrorist" who Obama has already addressed. If that is the case let's talk "keating five and the anti-semitic " groups that McCain has been affiliated with. Truly I am on Anderson 360 because is there no RATIONAL person of standing in this country who will state the OBVIOUS, Palin is nothing but an incendiary blowhard that the Republicans are using to DISTRACT us !!!! Truly mortifying to know that people around the world look at her as a reflection of Americans.

    October 5, 2008 at 8:56 pm |
  12. Miguel

    If Republicans are such Christians, Why do they support John McCain Knowing his wife is the hier to Budwiser King of D.W.I's?Sounds like they are a bunch of pagans. Does Palin Know about Cindy's ties to the Liquer Industry?

    October 5, 2008 at 6:05 pm |
  13. Lynn McCaghren

    Palin's remarks about being outside the Washington and media elite is another whine we have heard multiple times. She calls the VP debate a "filter". You would think answering the questions would let the American people know what her and McCain stand for, but oh no, she wants to go back to the kitchen table and soccer mom. We got it! What we don't get is her knowledge on the issues. Biden absoultely won the debate, hands down...without the winks.

    The fact that Palin wanted to "pivot" only reinforces the fact that she could not answer the questions at that time because they did not jive with her notes as written. Sad. Sarah clobbered herself, don't blame Ifill. Biden had no problem in answering the questions as asked. Have we heard Biden whine about the debate, no. I try to imagine Sarah sitting down at the political table which is talking about a certain issue and she wants to change the topic because she didn't bring the right notes.

    I realize that becoming a President or Vice President is a new experience for anyone going in for the first time. Cannot have all the answers. The important thing is that you have enough knowledge and working relationships with the politicians that do. Does that mean belonging to the elite, no. It means that you are able to work across all party lines for making decisions that serve the American people.

    October 5, 2008 at 5:23 pm |
  14. MIKE LAKE WORTH FLORIDA

    Sandra, don't feel alone. I can't count how many times Cindy from GA. has been posted. Any time someone has any negative to say about Palin, HERE COMES CINDY. I know this won't get posted.

    October 5, 2008 at 4:15 pm |
  15. donald s box

    It show us that this woman isn;t qualified to be a dog catcher , the people in Alaska must be easy to fool to put her in the governors offive. Now saids Obama is atached to communist caracters, what is the Republican party comming to . Are they that desperate that now the brother of John Mccain is now calling northern Vergina commumist country. I have voted for white men all my life , whats wrong with voting for a black man . Also may i re mind you that is half white.

    October 5, 2008 at 3:33 pm |
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