By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 3, 2008
ST. LOUIS, Oct. 2 This week, Sarah Palin gave a curious rationale for her candidacy. "It's time," the Republican vice presidential nominee said, "that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency."
When she took the stage Thursday night here at Washington University for the vice presidential debate, Sarah Six-Pack all but popped open a cold one. Wearing a glittery flag pin on her jacket, she blew a kiss toward the audience. She gave a wave that Tina Fey would probably describe as adorable. Then she regarded her Democratic foe, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Nice to meet you," Palin told Joe Biden. "Hey, can I call you Joe?"
"You can call me Joe," the senator obliged.
"Okay, thanks," she said brightly.
"Thank you," Biden replied.
"Thank you," she told him again. "Thank you, Gwen," she told moderator Gwen Ifill. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she told nobody in particular.
It was going to be a long evening.
Palin's intellectual fitness had been put into question by her disastrous interview with Katie Couric, which was filled with panicked silences, flustered non-answers and even a promise to get back to the interviewer with more information. But when Palin took the stage with Biden last night for what may have been the most public IQ test ever administered, she had no problem meeting the exceptionally low expectations. She had talking points adequate to fill the 90 seconds on the various topics Ifill tossed her way, and often forced Biden to defend Barack Obama.
On the other hand, it wasn't exactly a confidence-builder. Palin, in her 90 minutes on the stage Thursday night, left the firm impression that she is indeed ready to lead the nation -- with an unnerving mixture of platitudes and cute, folksy phrases that poured from her lips even when they bore no relation to the questions asked.
"Let's commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six-Pack, hockey moms across the nation," she proposed when asked about the mortgage crisis.
"I want to go back to the energy plan," she said when asked about the federal bailout plan.
"I want to talk about, again, my record on energy," she said when asked about bankruptcy.
Biden grew frustrated. "If you notice, Gwen, the governor did not answer the question."
Replied Sarah Six-Pack: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."
And, indeed, she stared into the camera, largely ignoring Ifill, Biden and the audience.
On occasion, she unilaterally revised policy for John McCain, as when she said Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "is not one whom we can allow to acquire nuclear energy, nuclear weapons." At other times, her answers defied comprehension, as when Ifill asked about her trigger for using nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period," she answered.
Iffy, but not the alarming sort of answers she gave Couric on CBS. Then, Palin couldn't identify what newspapers or magazines she reads, couldn't cite a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, or any regulatory effort McCain had supported. Asked to name a favorite vice president, she cited Geraldine Ferraro.
In the canned debate format, Palin's platitudes held up better than under Couric's follow-up questions. "Oh yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider," she said with a shy grin when Ifill asked about putting troops in Darfur. "And someone just not used to the way you guys operate." Asked about the possibility that she would assume the presidency if the president died in office, she found herself saying, "I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there, brought to Washington, D.C."
When Ifill said she was changing the subject to foreign policy, Palin tilted her head to the side, gave a slight shrug and made a wary grin. Still, even then, she was able to fill up all 90 seconds of her allotted response time. "Um, your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq," she told Biden in a playground taunt. "You guys opposed the 'surge.' "
Smiling through entire sentences, she was relentlessly folksy and unafraid of the trite. The credit squeeze, she said, is "affecting Main Streeters like me." On Middle East policy: "I'm so encouraged to know that we both love Israel."
Predatory mortgages a problem? "Darn right," she said. Tax relief? "Darn right."
Ifill asked Palin if there were any campaign promises she would have to scale back because of the financial crisis. "How long have I been at this?" Palin shot back. "Like, five weeks?"
When backed into uncomfortable terrain, such as defending the Bush administration's economic record, she exploded into cliche and non sequitur: "Say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again pointing backwards again. . . . Now doggone it, let's look ahead." Before finishing her answer, she mentioned her "brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third-graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate."
"Everybody gets extra credit tonight," the moderator assured Sarah Six-Pack. "We're going to move on to the next question."