Friday, October 3, 2008

The VP debate changed nothing

Palin's strategy was clear - to be folksy, perky, and look straight into the camera as often as possible. Biden's strategy was to not attack her and instead link President Bush and McCain together as a package. You could tell that not being allowed to directly go after Palin caused Biden to feel frustrated because he would smile while she attacked him. But he ran the risk of alienating women if he had been too tough on Palin. He did well as he managed to be forceful without appearing overbearing when he challenged Palin's facts.

Early on, Palin told the moderator, Gwen Ifill, that she could ask whatever she wanted, but "I'm gonna answer whatever I want." She kept true to that promise, refusing to answer the question of whether a bailout bill showcased the worst of Washington or the best, refusing to answer the question about the McCain-Palin plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq, and refusing to discuss McCain's record as a deregulator in Congress. Instead, she repeated the Republican mantra of low taxes as being good for the economy and issued charges that Obama had voted for tax hikes on families that make as little as $42,000, which Biden answered with facts that proved her statement as untrue. Palin also avoided discussing McCain's deregulation history by declaring that her own record in Alaska shows her as a tax cutter, although under Palin the sales tax in Wasilla did go up. Politicians often avoid tough questions and try to point the finger at the other guy, but Palin seems to do so because she doesn't have an answer to the question.

As the economy took center stage, Biden argued that McCain's conversion to being a regulator of Wall Street was only in the last two weeks. He pointed to a recent article where McCain had called for deregulation in the health care industry similar to the deregulation on Wall Street. He said, "And while (Democratic presidential candidate) Barack Obama was talking about reinstating those regulations, John on 20 different occasions in the previous year and a half called for more deregulation. As a matter of fact, John recently wrote an article in a major magazine saying that he wants to do for the health care industry deregulate it and let the free market move like he did for the banking industry."

Palin was at her best when she injected her sarcastic humor into her remarks. "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again looking backward," she told Biden. Yet, it was the Biden who got off the best one-liner of the night by using Palin's favorite line against her: "I call that the ultimate bridge to nowhere," he said while describing McCain's health care plan.

Biden did well in exposing McCain's $5000 health insurance tax deduction for those who need to buy insurance as not being nearly enough to pay for a policy which, on average, would cost at least twice that amount. He mentioned McCain's plan to tax an employee's health care benefits. Since employers would have to pay payroll taxes on the money they are spending on their employees' health insurance, there is a risk that many businesses will drop their employer-provided health care.

Palin did a decent job of exposing Biden's disagreement with Obama over Iraq policy during the Democratic primaries. But Palin was unable to sustain that line of attack because of Biden's superior understanding of Senate votes by Obama and McCain on the war. He pointed out several times when McCain voted against money for the troops.

The issue on Afghanistan and Iraq showcased a huge difference between the two presidential candidates, with Obama favoring a 16-month withdrawal from Iraq in order to focus on Afghanistan, and McCain opposing this strategy. Biden was knowledgeable and comprehensive when the questioning turned to the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the pursuit of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In one response he linked McCain's policies in the middle-east repeatedly to those of the deeply unpopular President Bush. Palin's talking point that Obama's plan for a troop withdrawal timetable was a "white flag of surrender in Iraq, and that is not what our troops need to hear today," was well delivered at just the right moment, but she noticeably failed to answer pointed questions on Bush's handling of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian question.

There was another misstep by Palin after Biden almost lost his composure while speaking of the death of his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972. Palin failed to acknowledge his obvious distress as she hastily delivered a prepared answer into the camera - which did not work well toward forging an emotional attachment with the viewers.

Throughout the debate, Biden was clearly in control of both his facts and his demeanor, while at times Palin struggled to appear in command of the subject. Palin was better when she was attacking Obama's record and plans than she was in explaining her team's positions.

Who won last night's vice presidential debate? The answer depends on which ticket you support. If you like the Democrat ticket, then Joe Biden won as he consistently did a better job of actually answering the questions, using facts and policy. If you prefer the Republican ticket, Palin won, performing better than expected, as she skirted difficult questions and used memorized talking points that often strayed well away from what was asked.

The debate changed nothing in the race.