Tonight, Senator Joe Biden rather handily won the Vice Presidential debate, but the question of who won is completely irrelevant. Everyone knew Biden is the superior debater, so the real competition was not of Biden vs. Governor Sarah Palin, but of each of them against their own expectations. After the Katie Couric interview last week, Palin became a national joke who most people thought couldn't even put a sentence together, let alone run a country. While the only time Biden could get himself on TV was if he had some silly gaffe, leading the average American to have no sense of who he is. So with expectation as the real test, it's clear that each of them performed way above their expectations.
I'll begin with Palin, who was the reason most people were so excited about the debate. While some may have expected her to embarrass herself tonight, she instead quite capably held her own. While she was rarely on top of the issues, she refused to let Biden steamroll her, consistently fighting back every assertion and leading the debate back to her comfort zone. She may have been nervous, but she spoke clearly and coherently. Her performance will clearly go a long way to freeing her of the stench of the Katie Couric interview, and few are likely to still think she's a complete idiot.
All that being said, there were a number of mistakes she repeatedly made throughout the debate. It was obvious she was coached to avoid difficult questions and steer her responses to areas she preferred. John McCain used this tactic all through the first debate and did so brilliantly, keeping a full half hour on pork barrel spending and making Obama play defense. Unfortunately, without McCain's practice, Palin's attempts were obvious and clumsy. She often began her answers with long pauses followed by stating she would like to return to a previous topic. Other answers just segued directly into talk of Alaska when it was irrelevant. Her continuous changing of topics made it seem like all she could talk about were Alaska and energy, which helped add to the belief that she is completely clueless about the country and the world.
She also presented two different Sarah Palins, both of which presented problems. On the one hand, about 80% of what she said sounded like McCain soundbites that were hammered into her head over the past week and that she desperately wanted to remember. Her recitation often sounded rote and forced, and she seemed nervous a good portion of the time. The rest of the time, she was the "folksy" Alaskan hockey mom who's "just like you." This character she's created was certainly her biggest selling point when she first entered the national stage, and it was likely to make a lot of people remember what they liked about her in the first place. But she's come a long way from winning people over with jokes about pitbulls. The constant winking and use of the word "doggone" caused her to seem like a cartoon character completely removed from reality. What all that means is the "breath of fresh air" she came in as has dissipated into a carefully crafted characterization that may be just as ungenuine as the talking points she spouts. Of course, that's just my take on her, and I expect many to still be lapping it up.
With Palin taking all of the media spotlight this campaign, Biden has always been the forgotten VP candidate. If he was mentioned in a sentence, it was either regarding one of his gaffes or calling him a safe and uninteresting pick for Obama. So while everyone expected him to do well against Palin with his greater knowledge of foreign and domestic policy, what was less expected is the way he completely stole the show. He managed to balance his tone nicely - treating Palin with respect but still willing to hammer her on certain points (usually indirectly, like when blasting Cheney after Palin defended him or purposefully mentioning the Bush Doctrine). He was passionate without seeming over-the-top. And for all of his lawyerly, politician-to-the-core style, he somehow came off as more genuine than the "real American" Sarah Palin.
Biden's biggest mistake was a recurring case of John Kerry/Al Gore Syndrome, in which the candidate gets caught up spouting facts and statistics that are difficult for anyone outside of Washington to follow, even if accurate. This is the difficulty of the broad vs. specific debate. Palin had 0% substance as threw out words like energy and education without ever going into any details. But at the same time, she got her points across a lot better than the deep analysis Biden sometimes gave.
But if this condition hurt Biden early on, he quickly corrected it in the second half. He learned to make his biggest points stick, often dramatically repeating them. While his method of numbering his arguments may have seemed very lawyerly, it also kept him organized and easy to follow. The numbering method also helped him respond to all of Palin's attacks when she often ignored all of his. Last week, Obama had trouble defending against McCain because he had to keep saying "that's not true," putting him on the offensive. In this way, Biden proved more effective, staunchly denying a claim from Palin while simultaneously shooting out another back at her.
Lastly, he effectively used his personal life to keep him from seeming elitist while also not overdoing it. By now, we've heard about McCain's time as a POW so much it has little effect, and Palin can't start a sentence without the word Alaska. But by mentioning his personal tragedy only once, and only in response to one of Palin's comments, Biden really hit it home. If that move was just calculated on his part, then he certainly used it effectively. But I tend to think the moment may have actually been geunine, and that's certainly the response it elicited from my viewing group.
So with both candidates doing so well by their own standards, it's hard to say what effect the debate will have. I imagine Palin's performance will reassure McCain supporters who had considered jumping ship over the past few weeks, so those huge Obama gains in the polls may slow down as the conservatives come back. But I think Biden's stronger performance will do more to win over independents, who tonight clearly saw the gap in leadership between these two candidates.