The VP Debate


The Read-Only Version, by Anne Applebaum.

Having just had the surreal experience of watching snippets of the Biden-Palin debate on a BlackBerry while sitting in a car traveling between Nagoyo and Kyoto (don’t ask), I thought it worth pointing out, belatedly, how different the vice-presidential debate seems when watched and when read.

I saw the transcript first, before I’d seen those snippets or read much commentary, and I therefore thought Palin had had a disastrous night.

For one, she kept contradicting herself, not least about the role of “government.” On the one hand, she declared that “we need to make sure that we demand from the federal government strict oversight of those entities in chage of our investments.” A few minutes later, she declared that “government, you know, you’re not always the solution. In fact too often you’re the problem.”

She did the same thing on climate change and carbon emissions, saying that “as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change sub-cabinet to start dealing with the impacts. We’ve got to reduce emissions.” A few minutes later, she called for drilling: “The chant is ‘drill, baby, drill.’ And that’s what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into.”

In the transcript, Palin’s “soundbites” stand out because she frequently repeats them, often with colloquial emphasis (“darn right it was the predator lenders…darn right we need tax relief”). Biden, by contrast, seems consistent and intelligent. You don’t have to agree with everything he’s saying to conclude that he appears to have thought through the issues he’s discussing, and has come to the conclusions himself.

When watched, however — even on a very, very small screen — Palin is far more convincing. She looks bright and energetic, she speaks with enthusiasm, she sounds confident about what she is saying. Biden, though not awful, is simply less interesting to watch. One tends to forget his answers; one tends to remember hers.

To put it differently: She made better television, he made better arguments. Which is why, I suppose, most commentators are calling this a “draw.”

Odd Moments, by Ruth Marcus.

In every debate, there are odd moments that tend to pass unnoticed because they do not concern the central issues of the day. Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate featured two such episodes. In one, Sen. Joseph Biden was illogical on the matter of gay rights. In the other, both Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin were incoherent on the matter of the constitutional role of the vice president.

“Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple,” Biden said in answer to a question about whether he supported equal benefits for same-sex couples. He went on to invoke the Constitution three more times. “The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution…. same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, et cetera. That’s only fair.” And, “It’s what the Constitution calls for. And so we do support it. We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do.” Italics added.

Biden cannot actually mean what he says — because the implications of his statement contradicts his (and Barack Obama’s) asserted position opposing marriage for same-sex couples. (They support civil unions, which Biden forgot to mention.) Alternatively, he may mean what he says — but simply be unwilling to acknowledge that the consequence of that view is that the constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry. Either way, it’s inconsistent to make the argument that there is a constitutional right to be free of discrimination as a gay or lesbian person and to oppose gay marriage.

The discussion of the constitutional status of the vice president was even more tangled.

Asked whether she shares Vice President Cheney’s belief that, as moderator Gwen Ifill put it, “the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch,” Palin reverted to Couric interview-levels of blather. Only the complete quote can capture the full extent of her floundering:

Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.

Not that Biden did any better. Cheney, he said, “doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States. That’s the executive. He works in the executive branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.” Except, oops, Article I sets out the role of Congress and the vice president’s position as president of the Senate. Article II does all that executive branch stuff.

Biden went on to say that the “idea that he’s a part of the legislative branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of the unitary executive.” Except that, too, makes no sense. Cheney was using his legislative role as a way to argue that he was exempt from disclosure requirements that apply to the executive branch — not to aggrandize the power of the presidency. Indeed, as University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds (better known as Instapundit) has argued, “an activist Vice Presidency, in the Cheney model, might be considered unconstitutional if the Vice President is regarded as a legislative official,” because the president would be violating the separation of powers to delegate executive power to a legislative branch official.

Oh well. Everyone can go back to talking about Gen. McClellan now.

Biden’s Distortions, by Jackson Diehl.

Joe Biden is getting credit for being more “factual” and substantive than Sarah Palin in last night’s debate. He shouldn’t. A good deal of what Biden said was exaggerated, distorted or simply false — especially in his nominal area of expertise, foreign policy.

Let’s start with Iraq. Biden claimed that John McCain was the “odd man out” in his plans for the war, while the Bush administration and the Iraqi government had adopted the strategy of Barack Obama. The truth is just the opposite. The administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are still negotiating about the future of the U.S. troop presence, but according to the latest reports they are close to settling on a target date for withdrawal at the end of 2011. That’s a year and a half after Obama’s 16-month timetable would run out. More importantly, Bush, Maliki, U.S. commanders and McCain all agree that the pullout should be “conditions-based” — it should go forward only as Iraqi forces are able to take over. As Biden confirmed last night, the Obama pullout is not based on conditions; his theory is that the timetable will force action by Iraqis, rather than the other way around. When he visited Iraq in July, Obama was candid enough to confirm that Gen. David Petraeus, Maliki and leaders of the Sunni militia forces all opposed his strategy. On Iraq, he remains the odd man out.

Biden also charged that the United States spends more in Iraq in three weeks than it has in total in Afghanistan. As Chris Wilson of Slate points out, that comes close to being true only if total U.S. spending in Iraq is compared only with non-military spending in Afghanistan — and even then it’s not true. The United States spends about $8 billion in three weeks in Iraq, compared with a total of $12 billion in non-military spending since 2001 in Afghanistan. In total, Congress has authorized $172 billion in spending for Afghanistan — or about 61 weeks of spending in Iraq.

Biden said he could find no difference between McCain and Bush on policy toward Israel, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’s right — there is no real difference. But what he failed to disclose is that there is also no significant difference between Obama’s proposals for those countries and what the Bush administration is doing. Biden denied that Obama agreed to meet unconditionally with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There he was both right and wrong: Obama did say he would do so in answer to a debate question more than a year ago, but he has since hedged his position considerably. As a practical matter, it’s very unlikely Obama would meet Ahmadinejad if he became president.

Lastly, Biden asserted that both he and Obama had opposed the staging of Palestinian legislative elections in 2005, and had predicted that if they were held Hamas would win. In fact, while Obama signed a letter (with more than 90 other senators) expressing concern that Hamas would participate in the election without disarming, he did not predict the Hamas victory. And Biden did not sign the letter; indeed, he served as an observer at the election that he now says should not have gone forward.

In the Cold Light of Morning: Veep Debate Not a Game Changer, by E. J. Dionne.

I hate to use that cliché, but the question that really matters about last night’s vice presidential debate is: Did it arrest the drift toward Obama? The evidence from the early polling is that it didn’t. The polls showed that Biden won the debate, which is likely to reinforce the current direction of the campaign.

I offer my own views of the debate in my column today. I think Palin reassured her own supporters, but I don’t think that those who had doubts about her capacity to assume the presidency going in came away with huge reassurances. A CNN poll found that 87 percent of those surveyed thought Joe Biden had the qualifications to assume the presidency; only 42 percent said that of Palin.

Palin has been the center of the commentary because she looked better in this format than she did in the Katie Couric interviews. But Biden had a very hard job: to present Barack Obama’s case, stand up to Palin’s attacks on Obama and not look like a bully. He pulled that off, and his performance is probably being underrated in all the focus on Palin.

Bottom line: The GOP is relieved, but the trajectory of the election is still in Obama’s direction. Look for another big move from McCain.

Here are a few more findings from the instant polls:


The CNN/Opinion Research Corp. said 51 percent of those polled thought Biden did the best job, while 36 percent thought Palin did the best job….

Both candidates exceeded expectations — 84 percent of the people polled said Palin did a better job than they expected, while 64 percent said Biden also exceeded expectations.


Forty-six percent of these uncommitted viewers said Biden won the debate Thursday night, while 21 percent said Palin won. Thirty-three percent thought it was a tie.

Even a quarter of Republican uncommitted voters thought Biden won the debate…

Palin’s rating improved after the debate on being knowledgeable on important issues – from 43 percent to 66 percent – but Biden still far outpaces her. After the debate, 98 percent thought he was knowledgeable.

Uncommitted voters’ views of Palin’s preparedness for the job of vice president also improved as a result of her debate performance – from 39 percent to 55 percent. But those numbers are still nowhere near the percentage that thinks Biden is prepared: 97 percent, up from 81 percent before the debate.

Sarah the Speedy, byHarold Meyerson.

She spoke almost as fast as Joe Biden. She smiled. She responded to any question that required real-time thinking by ignoring it and dredging up a canned answer from the McCain campaign’s canned-answer pool. She resurrected the phrase “doggone it,” and others like it, for public consideration: Should we revive it? Put it on our currency? “In God We Trust, Doggone It?”

And for all this, Sarah Palin was rewarded Thursday Night with a resounding vote of Most Improved. She didn’t get lost in the Bering Strait, as she had with Katie Couric. She had memorized her answers, even if they weren’t the answers to the questions Gwen Ifill posed. Fully 84 percent of debate-watchers in CNN’s poll said Palin had done better than expected.

But they also said Joe Biden won the debate by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent. The CBS poll had it Biden 46 percent, Palin 21 percent. No, she didn’t look like a deer in the headlights, because she never once paused to look around, or, for that matter, to think. But she didn’t remotely look like a president, either, like the person we trust with decisions of war and peace and life and death.

Biden, meanwhile, was having the night of his life. In fact, he did two things that Barack Obama didn’t do nearly as well in the first presidential debate last week. First, he put the middle class at the center of his case for the Democratic ticket and delineated a pro-middle-class economics quite distinct from the Republicans’ trickle-down. Second, he relentlessly attacked John McCain’s voting record, and linked it to the policies of the Bush administration. Biden, we should remember, is a scrappy lawyer with working-class roots, and he came across Thursday night as a more effective, plausible, nuanced but no-nonsense populist tribune than the Democrats have had in years. Given the current zeitgeist, he was just what the Democrats needed. Serious times need serious leaders, and Biden was surely that.

Palin was the kid from the sticks who was still standing when it was done. The nation, I think, was grateful for that. If she had gotten deeply flummoxed, as she had been during the Couric interview, it would have caused embarrassed cringing in America’s living rooms. Instead, her performance was a marvel of its kind — dissociated, jumbled, at times completely contradictory (“you build up infrastructure and rein in government spending,” she prescribed at one point: Huh?), with soundbites appearing and reappearing almost at random, but fast, happy, almost joyous: Made it through that five-minute question that I know nothing about without even pausing: Phew!