Last night, in reference to the vice presidential debate, I asked a friend of mine if there was a difference between a tie and not changing anyone’s mind. He said there wasn’t one; the point of a debate is to change minds. But if the inverse is true, that a debate is meant to prevent those already on your side from switching over, then in that respect it was Joe Biden’s victory, since he and Barack Obama are consistently holding a modest lead over John McCain and Sarah Palin, and this debate did nothing to change that. But it was a tie, because neither shone enough to convert true skeptics.
Forty million people watched Sarah Palin’s convention speech. She was new on the scene, full of energy and the time was ripe for something to happen to McCain’s campaign. The crowd reaction shots were full of ecstasy, and her favorables went through the roof. As the weeks went on she dropped like a stone. Last night, the focus was again on her, since her previous interviews left something (a legitimate VP candidate?) to be desired.
What viewers saw was a candidate who knows how to talk the talk; she covered all her bases as she resorted to reading off cards brimming with boilerplate. She knows how to misdirect questions, how to wink and smile and chirp her way into confidence. All politicians do this, and as I mentioned in the comment thread of my live-blogging effort, Palin’s success is more a referendum on all politicians than it is on her. The experienced and the inexperienced are united by a common lexicon of deflections, half-answer and non-answers—everyone loses except the inexperienced. I think viewers saw a fresh face saying the same things they've been told for decades.
What I learned about Palin is that she would be effective umbrella for a wide variety of advisors and analysts. Give her the talking points, and she’ll drive‘em thruyeh. But she clearly has not shown any examples of outright open thought. By open thought I mean demonstrating an ability to analyze an issue in a public context—a debate, an interview, at a rope line. This is something Obama has shown he can do time and time again. Palin has not shown herself to be someone who thinks through issues; she thinks around them via the most talking points possible.
Biden was not perfect, but he stood his ground (he had plenty going in), snapped off a great one-liner (McCain’s health care plan the “ultimate Bridge to Nowhere”) and brought a strain of real, deep emotion.
Palin brought up her “diverse” family several times throughout the debate as a reminder to voters that she’s one of them. When she brought this argument to a head late in the debate, Biden answered with his own family history: After his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, he took care of his two badly injured sons. He choked up in the telling; it was sincere, and in no small way he was telling Palin she couldn't claim a monopoly on the whole connecting-to-the-Ameican-people-via-my-family meme.
Palin didn’t register one iota of compassion; not one real emotion broke through that crafted image. I don’t think that will resonate as much as I’d like it to, though it might have moved a few stone hearts out there. What it proved to me is not that Palin is uncaring—I don’t believe she deliberately ignored Biden’s vulnerability; it showed me she is so caught up in the election-campaign-debate-cramming machine she couldn’t recognize a genuine moment when it was ten feet away from her.
UPDATE: The Obama/Biden campaign has an ad out feautring Biden's field dressing of McCain's health care plan.