The Running Mates' Moment

Friday, October 3, 2008

IT IS A measure of the low expectations for last night's vice-presidential debate that what was, in the end, a rather surface-skimming discussion full of evasion and mischaracterization was viewed as good news for both Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Biden was neither discursive nor condescending, as he can be; Ms. Palin was more confident and more coherent than she had been in the few, increasingly disastrous interviews she has given since joining the Republican ticket. The two nominees conducted a civil discussion about the relative merits of the two tickets, and for that we suppose we should be grateful. But there was little serious give-and-take about the major issues of the day -- from the Wall Street bailout to the war in Iraq -- and much trading of canned and misleading talking points.

Ms. Palin took liberties with Sen. Barack Obama's record on taxes, asserting unfairly that he voted to raise taxes on families making more than $42,000. Mr. Biden went similarly astray when he denied that Mr. Obama had said he would meet without precondition with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Each candidate offered a grossly distorted picture of the other side's plans for health care, with Ms. Palin wrongly asserting that the Obama proposal amounts to a "universal government run program" and Mr. Biden understating the value of Sen. John McCain's proposed tax credits. Although each was happy to claim credit for foresight about the economic crisis and to blame the other side for failing to act, neither presented much of a vision of how to heal the economy, and, as with the presidential candidates last week, neither was willing to grapple with how the meltdown would affect the next administration's ability to press on with its existing proposals.

Ms. Palin often dodged the question asked and tended to head for the safe terrain of energy when confronted with a different topic. Too often, instead of wrestling with serious issues, she resorted to stock statements, folksy talk ("doggone it"; "darn right it was the predator lenders") and a disconcerting wink. She tended to repeat herself, and she laid on the "Joe Six-Pack, hockey moms across the nation" awfully thick. At the highest-stakes moment in her short career on the national stage, Ms. Palin did not embarrass herself as she had, for example, in her interview with CBS's Katie Couric. Yet her answers on many issues remained puzzling. On climate change, for instance, Ms. Palin acknowledged that "there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?" But understanding the causes of climate change is essential to determining what should be done to address it.

Mr. Biden, a far better-known quantity and a more experienced debater, did well in part by not messing up: He did not say anything that the McCain-Palin campaign could seize on as sexist or dismissive. Instead, Mr. Biden seemed determined not to engage with Ms. Palin but with her running mate; he was sharpest at the end as he ticked off the ways in which Mr. McCain was not a maverick but was tied to the positions of the Bush administration. Last night's debate was no train wreck for either ticket, but it left one hoping that the remaining two presidential encounters will be more illuminating on the issues.

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