Joe B. Outslugs Pesky Palin 14-10-4

One thing I’ve learned from once again “scoring”  the debate. When you try to write down every question, then rate each candidate on their responses. . . it can get confusing!

From my 8 pages of notes, I can track the meanderings of the conversation and see this kind of thing: Moderator asks a question…Candidate A makes a dutiful but bland attempt to answer the question, stays on track, but says little that’s important. . . Candidate B brushes off the question, does a quick feint and jab, and spins off a socko one-liner that will probably stay in voters’ minds long after Candidate A’s responsible dullness has faded.

So who “wins” that exchange? If you score strictly on quality of response to the question–substance, detail, etc.–Candidate A gets the point. If you score on theatrics, verve, memorability,  it’s Candidate B.

It’s also hard to decide who’s really answering “The” question and who’s responding to a tangential but provocative spinoff of a question. We need some kind of elaborate tree/branch diagram.

With all that in mind, I count about 28 questions/offshoots of questions/substantial exchanges, far more than in the first O vs. McC debate. According to my scorecard. . .

TOTAL EXCHANGES: 28

WON BY BIDEN: 14

WON BY PALIN: 10

TIES: 4

Some notes and comments:

*No point commenting much on Biden, who has forgotten more about Washingtonia than Gwen Iffel has learned.  He did what any big-league hitter would do against Little League pitching. Dog bites man. He mainly served to accentuate Palin’s alien-outsider status, but since his qualifications for office were never in doubt, the evening wasn’t about him.  I did think his emotional moment about his wife and family was quite moving and genuine. We should always remember that politicians, even those we oppose or dislike,  are human beings with inner lives much like our own.

*With expectations for Palin  lower than a snake’s belly (as we say in Texas),  she did much better than I expected. I noted a few switched names and screwups (a general’s name, “Talibani” in wrong spot), but given that I half-expected a catatonic disaster, she was surprisingly good. Obviously she’d been coached and crammed like a nervous junior before the SATs, but what’s the alternative? If she hadn’t been, we’d be saying she was sloppy and lackadaisical.

*Does learning a lot in 5 weeks make her the best person to be One Heartbeat Away? No. She’s a quick study, and there is a working brain in there after all, but that’s just not enough.

 *Palin’s worst moment came when she clearly didn’t understand the esoteric “unitary executive” idea that wraps in with Cheney’s expanding his Veep role in ways many think improper if not unconstitutional.  Acc. to my notes, it looked like P was just playing the peppy, energetic, ready-to-work-for-you card, sort of “Hey, coach, gimme the ball and I’ll run with it.” I don’t see anything darkly malevolent in her reply, if only because she probably knows more about the Detroit Red Wings’ front line than she does about the whole unitary exec flap. Her critics can’t  have it both ways: She’s either a naive dunce or a calculating Machiavelli, but I don’t see how she can be both.  At any rate, with McCain slipping into darkness, it’s a pretty academic point.

*Tactic that must have annoyed Biden most: Her repeated attempt to paint Team Obama as backward-looking, finger-pointing scolds fixated on the past.

*This debate really begs the question of how much voters really want an “outsider” to lead. That’s a  plaintive cry from many voters every four years:  Gosh, we’re  tired of these Washington types slurping at the trough! We want somebody fresh and new, somebody who hasn’t been up there forever at the Georgetown cocktail parties and forgotten what it’s like out in the real world, somebody who brings a new set of eyes to the problem, etc.

Then we get someone like a Perot or a Palin and we recoil, saying, “Wait! We didn’t mean someone different and new like that!” But maybe that’s our choice: You either go with someone genuinely untested, someone who might prove a loose cannon, or you go with the people who’ve been there longer than the Teddy Roosevelt paintings, so long they refer to “Judge Bork” as if the hearings were last week. (Year of Bork hearings: 1987. Percentage of voters who can ID Bork: 27?)

*A good performance by Palin last night was a necessary condition for McCain to have any shot, but it’s not sufficient.  This election is slipping away from him every day. I don’t think there’s anything that he or Palin can do to leap the chasm opened by the economic meltdown. Fairly suddenly, McCain has been revealed as the man with the wrong toolkit for this particular problem. He has brought a nice set of crescent wrenches to a forest fire.

Barring some unimaginable screwup by Obama, I  think McCain’s “choice” now is to lose with some semblance of dignity and grace, acting in line with the high aspirations he claims in his book Faith of My Fathers, or to lose in a shameful, kamikaze blitz of character assassination that will besmirch the good name he once had. I hope he’ll choose the former.

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