Palin Clears a Low Bar But Still Doesn’t Win

The ingredient that turned the confident, authoritative Sarah Palin that Americans met at the Republican convention into the alarmingly shaky and ill-informed Miss Teen South Carolina clone they saw in her recent television interviews isn’t exactly a secret: follow-up questions.

At the convention, the Alaska governor (and former television anchor) read from a text, threw in a well-timed ad lib and delivered a mesmerizing performance that she’d had a week to rehearse. When she sat down with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, though, her interlocutors could ask their questions over and over until Palin was forced to abandon her script and confront them directly, resulting in the erratic and nonsensical filibusters that have left millions of voters scratching their heads.

At Thursday’s vice presidential debate, there were no meaningful follow-up questions and the direct exchanges between Palin and Joe Biden were minimal. This suited John McCain’s running mate just fine.

“I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter of the mainstream media,” she gushed toward the end of the debate.

Of course, “answer” doesn’t actually describe how Palin fielded the queries that were thrown her way. If she’d tried to do that, it would have ensured a repeat of the Gibson and Couric train wrecks. Instead, she used every question she was asked as a jumping-off point for what amounted to a series of two-minute (or 90-second, in some cases) speeches that she’d rehearsed ahead of time and that she delivered with the same polished confidence she’d displayed in St. Paul. This time there was no teleprompter, but given how short her answers were, she didn’t need one.

For instance, early in the debate, Biden – in one of the few times he challenged her directly – pointed out that Palin had completely ignored a question about deregulation. (Rather than explaining John McCain’s past support for deregulation – which Biden had faulted for the Wall Street debacle – Palin had used her previous answer to accuse Biden and Barack Obama of wanting to raise taxes and “redistribute” wealth.)

“I’m still on the tax thing,” she replied.

Then, in words that summed up her strategy for the night perfectly, she added: “I may not answer the questions the way you or the moderator want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let ’em know my track record.” And then it was back to taxes.

Wisely, it was the McCain campaign that insisted on the hurry-up debate format, and it was obvious right away why they had. Instead of demanding more specificity from Palin (or from Biden, for that matter), moderator Gwen Ifill essentially kept time while each candidate had a turn to talk, then asked a new question. A few times, she stopped to ask for broad clarification on one point, but never did Ifill – as Couric and Gibson did when they interviewed Palin – stay on one question in a way that forced the candidates to answer it directly.

So Palin was free to make her mini-speeches and to talk in the broadest of terms about every subject, without the pesky burden of having to substantiate anything she said. The impact of this was considerable, especially at the start of the debate, when many casual viewers were probably expecting to see the same frazzled woman who has dominated YouTube for the past week. Instead, especially in the first half of the debate (when the subject was domestic issues), they were treated to a performance that was much more reminiscent of St. Paul.

If this was the standard for determining the debate’s winner – will Palin make a complete and utter fool of herself? – then victory has to be awarded to the G.O.P. candidate. She was friendly, folksy, and at-ease and her sentences were clear and coherent. But that standard seems like it better fits a junior high school debate competition than a vice presidential debate – is that really enough to declare Palin the winner?

Probably not.

There are two reasons for this. One is that, as the debate progressed, Palin seemed to exhaust her supply of mini-speeches, and by the end, she was repeating herself for the third or fourth time. Especially as the focus turned from domestic to foreign policy issues, her efforts to find some link between her pre-rehearsed speechlets and the subject at hand became more strained – like when she was asked to assess the Bush administration’s record on Israel and she replied by arguing (not for the first time) that Biden talked about the past too much. She never stammered like she did in her television interviews, but her exceedingly thin policy knowledge was just as clear.

But the bigger reason that Palin’s performance can’t really be called a victory was Biden, who was chosen by Obama because of his foreign-policy savvy and who validated his selection on Thursday night. Early in the debate, when the economy was discussed, Biden wasn’t quite in his element. He frequently looked off camera and repeated too many statistics. Palin looked and sounded more natural. But when foreign policy took over, Biden came alive – not so much in the words he used, but in the passion with which he spoke them.

Palin repeatedly fell back on her talking point that Obama had voted to cut off funds for American troops. Biden, his voice ringing with authority, pointed out that, by Palin’s standard, McCain had voted the exact same way.

“John McCain voted to cut off funding for the troops. Let me say that again. John McCain voted to cut off funding for the troops,” he said.

And when Palin used her Israel response to accuse Biden of talking about the past too much, Biden delivered an effective retort.

“Past is prologue,” he said, before launching into a virtual tour of international hot spots where the Bush administration’s policies have hurt American interests – and pointing out, repeatedly, that McCain and Palin haven’t differentiated themselves in any meaningful way from these policies.

Biden owned the foreign policy segment of the debate, and his mastery of the subject matter – and his savvy in communicating it – showed Palin’s attempts to fake it for what they really were.

Palin did her reputation a service on Thursday night. But that’s not saying much, given where it stood before the debate. When it was over, most voters probably concluded that she’s not as empty as they had been led to believe. And for a great many of them, it still doesn’t mean she’s vice presidential – or presidential – material.

Palin Clears a Low Bar But Still Doesn’t Win