The Vice-Presidential Debate: Highbrow versus Lowbrow
Fri October 3, 2008 11:47 am

Joe Biden won the debate. Sarah Palin won her battle for political survival by exceeding the lowest expectations ever for a national debate. She didn’t commit any gaffes, and she didn’t wander into any traps, the way Dan Quayle did in his debate against Lloyd Bentsen, when he attempted to rebut the charge that he was inexperienced by comparing his service in the Senate to that of John F. Kennedy. Bentsen famously replied, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Compared to Palin, Quayle is Jack Kennedy. She has no intellectual heft. The only weapons in her arsenal are folksiness, dogged determination, and a lot of–how to say it?–feminine pizzazz.

Biden is a pro. He knows the issues, he knows the facts, he’s articulate. He’s a Democratic Bob Dole, and I say that with respect for both men. He’s spent a lifetime in the Senate, but, like Dole, he has paid a price for that. He has adapted to that environment too well. He connects best with his fellow senators, not ordinary people. He doesn’t have a personality that reaches through the TV set and into living rooms across America. He has probably forgotten how to arrange his lips to utter Palinesque words like “betcha” and “wanna.” He’s all highbrow. Palin is all lowbrow. She can’t frame an argument to save her life. But she connects. Is that enough? This raises an intriguing question about modern politics. Do we want to be led by politicians who are just like us? Or do we want to be led by politicians who are far above average, who separate themselves from the crowd? The answer may not be obvious. The late conservative icon William F. Buckley once said, “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.” Buckley had a point: Intelligence isn’t of much use unless it is accompanied by wisdom. But folksiness is not wisdom.

Most of the people who adore Sarah Palin would never entrust their personal lives to someone like her. They would look for excellence in their doctors, their lawyers, their financial advisers, their children’s colleges. Personality would be a factor but reputation and stature would be priorities. So why do they embrace Palin? I think the answer is that most Republicans don’t like government and don’t care whether it is excellent. They do care whether they feel a connection with their leaders. They see Palin as Reagan in a skirt. But Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan.

At times last night I thought I was watching Sarah Palin playing Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin. In one exchange, Biden criticized Bush’s economic policies: “[T]he middle class has gotten the short end. The wealthy have done very well. Corporate America has been rewarded. It’s time we change it. Barack Obama will change it.” And Palin/Fey fired back, “Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced [sic] your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.” A Saturday Night Live script writer couldn’t have done better.

Since this debate was all about Sarah Palin, let’s look at her low and high points of the debate. The low point was her answer to a question about Iraq:

IFILL (moderator): “You both have sons who are in Iraq or on their way to Iraq. You, Gov. Palin, have said that you would like to see a real clear plan for an exit strategy. What should that be, Governor?”

PALIN: “I am very thankful that we do have a good plan and the surge and the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that has proven to work, I am thankful that that is part of the plan implemented under a great American hero, Gen. Petraeus, and pushed hard by another great American, Sen. John McCain.”

No attempt to answer the question. It is too much to expect the Republican nominee for vice-president to be able to know something, anything, about her ticket’s plan for Iraq? Her response was just cheerleading: 100% chippiness, 0% gravitas. This style is not going to wear well.

The high point was the first exchange of the debate, about the blame for the subprime crisis. Palin slammed “predatory lenders” and then went on to say:

“Let’s commit ourselves just every day American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say never again. Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars. We need to make sure that we demand from the federal government strict oversight of those entities in charge of our investments and our savings and we need also to not get ourselves in debt. Let’s do what our parents told us before we probably even got that first credit card. Don’t live outside of our means. We need to make sure that as individuals we’re taking personal responsibility through all of this. It’s not the American people’s fault that the economy is hurting like it is, but we have an opportunity to learn a heck of a lot of good lessons through this and say never again will we be taken advantage of.”

Here’s what makes this a great populist rant:
1. “Never again” is strong stuff
2. No resort to talking points like “Wall Street greed”
3. Switch to mom mode with “do what our parents told us”
4. Reference to personal responsibility, a Republican manta
5. Tone of sincerity rather than that awful contrived folksiness

But these moments were few and far between. (Another was her tolerance on the issue of gay partners.) Palin spent so much time looking down at her podium I started to wonder whether she was reading from cheat sheets.

The bottom line: Palin helped herself, but she didn’t do anything to change the trajectory of the campaign. Given the course of events, I don’t think that she could have. Biden was solid. He probably reinforced the Democrats’ advantage on economic issues.

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