Everywhere I go I hear that Palin is going to do surprisingly well against Biden in the debate, that she's not to be underestimated, she's a quick study, etc. Even given her disastrous Couric interview, hopes seem to be bizarrely high--Biden has to be careful not to seem dismissive or mean, and all she has to do is show up and seem competent.
I expect this sort of thing from the Obama campaign, who of course have an interest in keeping expectations for Palin high. (It's one of the most amusing things about debates: in the run-ups, you actually get to hear the campaigns say good things about their opponents for once: "He's a deadly debater! We're probably going to get killed! Lord a-mercy!") And certainly Palin had an impressive debut at the Convention. But there are a number of things I'm noticing that lead me to think it's going to be a bloodbath.
1.) She didn't show up on the news after the first debate. Commenting on your own lead guy's performance is the only thing the vice president does in campaigns like this. They're hired to be attack dogs. And so far, attacking--or rather, delivering attack lines written by a Bush speechwriter on a TelePrompTer--is the only thing Palin has shown any proclivity for. So the fact that the McCain camp didn't release this alleged pit bull on the one night everyone's expecting her to show, and the entire campaign actually let Joe Biden rip McCain apart on every news station unopposed, tells you how little confidence the campaign has in her. They actually judged that having her not show up at all was less damaging than letting themselves be attacked unopposed.
2.) The people who made this decision--Palin's handlers--are actually the only people who know anything about her, thanks to the media freezeout. So although idiots like Bill Kristol (who has been wrong on everything, right? So why is he still allowed to talk?) are starting to say "let Palin be Palin," and blame the campaign for overmanaging her, all of these calls are coming from people who don't know much about Palin (thanks to that media freezeout again) and are animated more by wishful thinking than observable fact.
3.) When Palin first appeared, she was a nobody, and anyone who disliked her was a partisan who wasn't giving her a chance. In the weeks since her arrival, even though her appearances have been tightly controlled and she's only taken 'safe' interviews, her approval ratings have fallen 27 points (to a net negative 3), and she's become an official national joke (thanks to Tina Fey--and, of course, thanks to Palin herself, who provided the script for Fey's last sketch).
4.) Palin's worst interview moments were with Katie Couric, who could hardly be accused of being sexist, or even of asking a single unfair question, and this has allowed people to think, "Wow. I think Palin may be dangerously uninformed because she's dumb, not because she's a woman and I'm a sexist." That meme is now safe, and Biden can retreat to it plausibly. (I expect the McCain campaign to accuse him of sexism no matter what happens, but I also expect it'll have no impact on the polling.)
5.) Biden already has a history of misspeaking. A huge long embarrassing history. And for this reason, if he says something wrong, it's not going to be nearly the millstone it'll be for Palin if and when she does the same thing. He's been inoculated against culpability for his words going back years. (This is the same inoculation that has largely worked for the McCain campaign against Obama so far: "Oh, sure, McCain got the Sunni and the Shia confused, but he's been a senator for a long time and it's just that one error." The larger narrative is stronger than the recent gaffe.)
In sum, then, I think the debate will be moderate and calm--because that's no doubt what Biden's going to be coached to do, and Palin's going to be in a defensive crouch, and the format itself is the most rigidly structured of the four--and when it's all over, Palin will probably have said two or three mildly absurd things, plus maybe two memorably heartwarming coached moments, and Biden will too. Net result: further loss for Palin, because she now needs to prove she's amazingly competent and not just a hockey mom, and she doesn't have it in her. Not for ninety minutes. Not without a TelePrompTer.
That's the other nice thing about a debate. In the Potemkin world of modern Republican politics, it's become essential for conservatives to stage-manage their own reality (with Fox News, Conservapedia, and the like). But there's a limit to how much you can stage-manage a debate, and once the cameras are on, Palin will be alone out there. And then, as an additional treat, Palin will have to appear the next day on talk shows--no doubt to defend something she said that showed a depth of ignorance or was contrary to McCain's policy or something. Which will give her a further chance to either say something worse or--more likely--freeze up and repeat the same empty talking points, which seems to be her fallback position when she senses hostility. Either way, it ain't gonna be loveable.
By the way, I turn 40 on October 3rd, the day the fallout goes down. I predict a very happy birthday to me. (And P.S., I won't be celebrating with a party; I'm looking into a quick jaunt off to Philly to volunteer for the Obama campaign. I'll organize something when I get back.)
Labels: current events