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Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Notes on the Vice Presidential Debate

Biden spouted more details about policy. Palin landed more punches. Moderator Gwyn Ifill was not the story, after all.

I'm a little behind the times, I admit. The vice presidential debate was Thursday evening. I heard the last half hour on the radio that evening, but it was this evening, five days later, before I finally watched the whole thing. As I write this, the next presidential debate is on television. I'll watch it and have some notes in due course.

As before, I don't intend to offer a detailed, or even a systematically objective, account or analysis of the debate. It's easy to find the video on the Internet; you can watch it yourself. I simply have some notes on style and content. I didn't approach the debate wondering for whom I should vote this November, or wondering what the candidates believe. I watched it to see how the candidates would do. Like many, I also watched to see how moderator Gwyn Ifill would do, after the news broke this week that her book on Barack Obama comes out in January, and that she therefore has an enormous personal financial interest in Obama winning the election.

Shall We Start with Style?

First, let it be said that Senator Biden was not Senator Biden of Judiciary Committee infamy. He was not condescending or offensive, or unduly verbose or abstruse. Overall, I thought he did fairly well, though I disagree with most of what he said.

For her part, Governor Palin was not Tina Fey. There was no airhead on stage. She was a little too folksy for my taste; there was a bit too much "you betcha" and "darn right," and we're still hearing the word "maverick" and the phrase "ruffle(d) a few feathers" too often for my taste. And I tire of the way she uses the word also at the end of sentences, also. But she wasn't vacant or inscrutable.

Senator Biden vanquished Governor Palin on the nuclear test. He actually says "nuclear." She said -- wince -- "nucular." Repeatedly.

In general, Senator Biden attacked Senator McCain, not Governor Palin, as expected. She took a couple of shots at Senator Biden, but mostly attacked Senator Obama. She seemed to have a corner on good cheer; he seemed very serious, almost solemn at times.

As for the moderator, I really had no complaints, nor did I expect to, after last week's book trouble. Her questions seemed appropriate and fair, and she didn't let the candidates run over her -- or overtime, for that matter. She pointed out occasionally when one or both candidates didn't answer her questions. In formal debate -- when you're on the debate team -- that's very bad. In politics it just makes sense: If they don't ask what you want to answer, you answer the question you wanted them to ask.

Notes on Substance

From the beginning, Biden harped on the Bush adminstration's economic policies, "the worst . . . we've ever had." He cited a failure to oversee and regulate properly as being the root of the current crisis. Happily, Palin came right back with the observation that Senator McCain warned years ago of inadequate oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and proposed changing that, but his Senate colleagues were not interested.

When Ifill asked who was to blame for the present crisis, Palin leaned a little too hard on Wall Street greed but also suggested a role for personal responsibility on the part of people who assumed debts they could not afford. This was good to hear. Biden blamed Bush and Wall Street, and subtly pooh-poohed the role of personal responsibility. (He is, after all, a liberal. He has to do that.)

An ongoing Biden theme was that the Republicans want to make the rich richer and shaft the middle class and everyone below that, while the Democrats want to fight for the middle class. Palin was well armed with examples of Biden and Obama voting for tax increases and against tax cuts -- and not just for the rich. Biden simply denied some of the examples.

Biden slightly altered Obama's claim that 95 percent of Americans will get a tax cut. He said 95 percent of those making less than $150,000 per year will get a cut. That's even less true than Obama's version; a high percentage of that group -- far more than five percent -- already pays no taxes, so there's nothing to cut.

Palin called it "redistribution of wealth." Biden called it "fairness."

Palin criticized Biden for having said that paying higher taxes is patriotic.

Palin contrasted her own record of taking on the oil companies with Obama's vote for an energy plan a couple of years ago which contained the very tax breaks for oil companies that Obama and Biden have been criticizing. Biden said it was because the bill contained support for alternative energy.

(This business of competitive voting-record criticism is a bit problematic, because if there is, say, hot lunch money attached to a bill to cede the entire US west of the Mississippi to China, and someone votes against it because of the China thing, an opponent in the next election will insist that it was a vote against children. Both parties play this game, of course.)

Biden seems scandalized that oil companies -- which are huge, with millions of investors -- have made, as he said, $600 billion on profits since 2001. I'm not sure why that's a crime, except that Biden is hostile to capitalism.

Biden said it's not enough to allow bankruptcy judges to adjust the interest rate in mortgages; he thinks they should be able to adjust the principal, too. Allowing judges to tinker with contracts and markets to that degree is scary, but, again, Biden is not a committed capitalist.

Palin gets a B from me on climate change, for saying it's not just human-caused. Biden gets an D-, for saying "it's clearly man-made" -- essentially, mistaking a religious dogma for science. If he had advocated the Kyoto economic suicide pact, he'd have earned an F.

Question: We're told that we have domestic oil reserves exceeding even the Middle East. How come the Democrats keep saying we have only three percent of the world's oil?

I believe Biden is wrong by several years when he says it would take ten years to get the first drop of oil from a new well. And even if he were right, I think we should drill anyway.

Biden said very forcefully that there would be "no distinction in an Obama-Biden administration between same-sex and heterosexual couples." When Ifill asked point-blank if he supports gay marriage, however, he said he does not.

Neither does Palin, by the way, though she's okay with benefits for other kinds of couples -- just not redefining marriage, she said.

Palin nailed Biden -- or Obama -- repeatedly by using Biden's own earlier criticism of Obama on the Iraq War. She added, for herself, that Obama's charges that US troops were air-raiding villages and slaughtering civilians were "beyond naivete, beyond poor judgment."

The version of history Biden is proud of with respect to Bosnia is a very sanitized, convenient version, but Palin left that one alone.

Biden claimed that his yea vote on the Iraq war resolution wasn't a vote authorizing war; Palin mocked him a bit for that. He said we should have waited to go to war until our allies were with us; I guess he means France, not the few dozen nations that were with us.

Biden kept saying the current election is the most important since 1932. I'm not sure how to measure such things, but I think 1980 was pretty important, in terms of reversing an economic disaster and winning the Cold War.

Biden said Dick Cheney has been "the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history." That's probably al Qaida's view of Cheney, too. I think he's been uniquely effective.

Several lists of "Biden's Lies" from the debate popped up within hours of the debate, and some of them really were lies. Others were just mistakes, as where he said Article I of the US Constitution describes the executive branch, when it's really Article II. That one's not a big deal, in my mind. Naturally, some lists of Palin's lies popped up in response, but Biden's were juicier.

I confess some sympathy with Biden when he went on a little riff about John McCain not being as much of a maverick as he claims. "He has been no maverick in the things that matter to people's lives," said Biden. Regrettably, his list of supporting examples -- of things that matter in people's lives, that is -- was dominated by government handouts.

All in all, both candidates did fairly well. Both sides claimed victory later, and public opinion polls tended to follow the politics of whichever audience was being polled. It certainly wasn't a knockout for either candidate. In pure policy terms, perhaps Biden scored more points than Palin. In debate terms, I think she landed more punches.

The most sensible analysis I heard was that Palin's strong performance took the running mate question off the table.

The Achilles Heel

If I could have scripted one answer for Governor Palin, it would have been to Ms. Ifill's question about a lack of experience being Palin's Achilles heel, according to conventional wisdom. I would love to have heard her say something like this:

Gwyn, I think that in asking the question you put your finger on the Achilles heel of our politics. Washington now -- at least in the conventional wisdom -- is so detached from American reality that my experience running a business, my years as a small-town mayor and as governor of a very large state with a small population, and my experience regulating oil companies are considered irrelevant. It's true that I haven't served in the Senate for decades, like my opponent, or like Senator McCain, for that matter. (At least Senator McCain, before he went to Washington, served this country in a profound way that no one else on the ticket has done.) The fact of the matter is, I have executive experience you can't get by serving in the Senate -- or, with all due respect to Senator Obama, by campaigning for president. Sometimes it really is lonely at the top. When you're in charge, and you make a decision, you could be wrong, and you'll get the blame. All of it. There won't be 99 others there with you to share responsibility.

I won't try to script one of Senator Biden's answers. I disagree with him on every major point in the debate, so it wouldn't be fair.

A Personal Note: Fox News

I arrived at Gold's Gym for my thrice-weekly workout just after the end of the debate. I wanted to watch the Utah-Oregon State game while I did my 2.5 miles (uphill all the way) on the treadmill, and I did. But the audio wasn't working on that channel, so I listened to Fox News instead. It was the post-debate discussions.

I've never watched Fox News for more than two or three minutes at a time before, and then generally in a hotel room. I don't even have cable television at my home. But I must say it was refreshing. Both sides were represented more thoroughly than on the major broadcast networks. And it was more or less balanced, though perhaps the conservative side was slightly more aggressively represented. The liberals didn't always get the last word; sometimes what they said was actually refuted. You don't see that much on the other networks any more.

It was fun.

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