The Palin-Biden Debate

Posted Oct. 01, 2008, at 5:38 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:24 a.m.

Vice presidential debates are usually afterthoughts, overshadowed by the matchups between those at the top of the ticket. This year, however, the debate between the vice presidential nominees, to be aired at 9 tonight, is expected to draw more viewers than last week’s first presidential debate.

A main reason for the heightened interest is Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. Many will tune in to see if she can improve upon her dismal recent television interviews. Others will watch to see if this self-described hockey Mom can send Democrat Joe Biden into the boards.

The stakes for both candidates are high, but both also face many pitfalls.

In part because of her performance in interviews, especially the recent series with Katie Couric, many, including conservative commentators, are saying the choice of Gov. Palin is a disaster for the Republican ticket.

“Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League,” conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in a column, published in this paper on Wednesday.

“Palin filibusters. She repeats words, filling space with deadwood. Cut the verbiage and there’s not much content there,” Ms. Parker wrote, before saying Gov. Palin must excuse herself from the race.

Perhaps because of such comments, expectations are very low for the Alaska governor, which, coupled with her down-home appeal, could be an advantage.

Sen. Joe Biden also faces a difficult task. Prone to speak his mind and to confuse history, he must walk a tightrope. If he is too harsh in criticizing the McCain-Palin ticket he could appear to be a bully. If he pushes too hard in questioning Gov. Palin’s qualifications, he could be considered condescending.

Consider the 1984 debate between Republican George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, the only other vice presidential debate to feature a woman. Mr. Bush was roundly criticized for appearing to lecture Ms. Ferraro on foreign policy and for later saying, “We tried to kick a little ass last night.”

To avoid such pitfalls, Sen. Biden must focus on explaining why he and Sen. Barack Obama will be better able to solve problems like the current market failure rather than pointing out the failings of Gov. Palin and John McCain.

While the debate will be watched by tens of millions of voters, they sadly aren’t likely to learn much about how either ticket will address the huge issues that will occupy the White House and Congress for years to come. Back-and-forth debate about the benefits and drawbacks about the proposed government bailout of Wall Street would be instructive. So would a serious debate about the benefits of keeping troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future versus a fairly quick withdrawal. Rather than recriminations for suggesting talks between the United States and Iran, the candidates should fully discuss their vision for future relations with the country’s erratic leader.

Instead, expect a lot of pandering to the middle class, little detail from either candidate and, hopefully, no talk of lipstick or pigs.

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