October 2, 2008
By Mary Lyon
I had help with this one. I watched Joe Biden and Sarah Palin square off, on CNN, specifically for that network's audience meters. In this case, it was a group of undecided voters in Ohio, both men and women. What was revealing to me was how the audience reaction dovetailed with my own.
You know how it is when you are already sold on a candidate - and you're automatically predisposed to favor them over any opponent? You might feel a little shaky about trusting your own ability to be objective. Since I'm an Obama/Biden supporter, of course I wanted Joe Biden to best Sarah Palin. As objectively as I can speak, from what I saw at the Vice Presidential Debate, I think he did.
Everything everyone said about Palin's charm offensive, how impressive she's performed in other political debates, and how she connects with audiences, is true. But if you know that going in, then you know what to look for, and you might not be as vulnerable to little asides and tricks and devices that might be used to pull at those feelings that come from your gut instead of a cooler head. Sarah laid it on pretty thick with all those.
There was the almost constant alluring smile, the coquettish tilt of the head - ever so slightly to one side as she gazed directly into the camera, an occasional little wink, and she did indeed make eye contact with her quarry as he did with her. When she was talking foreign policy, spouting lines about dictators, Afghanistan, "Eye-rack," "Eye-ran," and "nucular" weapons, it appeared obvious that she'd been heavily coached. There were times when a slight deer-in-the-headlights expression washed over her face, almost as though you could see a string being pulled so she could spout pre-packaged buzz phrases like a vintage Chatty Cathy doll without really having to think.
Biden seemed more earnest, more sincere, more wonkish, but he got points and details across. Listening to him made me feel calm and confident that he knew his stuff and hadn't spent days with the teaching-to-the-test types. He had clearly been advised to keep his powder dry and not try to attack Palin, aiming over her head at John McCain instead. It wouldn't have gained him anything to pull cheap shots against Palin, and it's good that he didn't. It made him look steady, reasoned, seasoned, even presidential.
Palin, on the other hand, had evidently received no such counsel. Several times she threw snark and mockery at Biden, patronizingly "congratulating" him for supporting Israel, the sanctimonious "your wife is a teacher, and God bless her!" and pressing her "more middle-class than thou" credentials around her now-famous kitchen table. Palin tried to turn a joke on herself (just what is it that a vice president does every day?) into a nasty little jab at Biden - "lame joke, yours was too, 'cause nobody got it." She apparently didn't get it much, either, envisioning a more prominent role with the great "flexibility" that there is in the VP job. Biden then took advantage of a great opening - referring to an individual who has enjoyed perhaps a little too much "flexibility" as vice president in the last seven-and-some years. It's about time somebody said, flat-out, in a venue like this, that Dick Cheney is one of the most dangerous vice presidents in American history (if not THE most).
It was telling, at least to me, that the audience with the reaction meters seemed to see it the same way. As Biden spoke those words, the lines for both men and women zoomed skyward. Yep, I'm not the only one who thinks that. Similarly, I thought I was the only person who is genuinely tired of hearing the word "maverick" bounced around like the rather - um - animated visuals on the average "Girls Gone Wild" video. Every time Palin invoked the "m-word," the lines for both men and women dropped. The lines dipped again when she expounded on the "team of mavericks" she formed with John McCain. Isn't that some kind of oxymoron? Would that be like a group of nonconformists? She tried a double-shot of sloganeering with a "say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again" (the audience reaction lines dropped again), after Biden had questioned how middle class neighborhoods were better off after the last eight years. Really - enough.
We've seen several portraits of Sarah by now: the professional mom with the soap opera family, the Mean Girl, the blubbering blabbermouth with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, and the carefully coached and programmed debater. Let Sarah be Sarah, her supporters gush. Well, okay. But I guess they just don't see how off-putting the real thing appears to be - or maybe it just doesn't bother them that much. It bothers me, though. A lot. This debate convinced me that I've seen more than enough of Sarah Palin to formulate an impression about her, and it isn't a favorable one. This is not somebody I'd like to go have a beer with, no matter how many times she lovingly invokes "Joe Sixpack." I'd be too busy wondering what kind of insults she'd throw at me and how low she'd try to hit me if she didn't like something I'd just said.
Yes, I'll state it here: I've been trying to be objective about Sarah Palin, since we may wind up having to live with her for four years, but this debate has now made me realize that I just do not like the woman. I don't like her at all. I don't like her cutesy schtick. I don't like her smugness. I don't like her too-obvious attempts to romance the camera whenever she smiles into it. It seems phony, calculated, and manipulative. I don't like the cheap shots she takes, or the "I'll betchas" and "darn rights" and disingenuous "folksy" stuff, and I especially don't like her meanness. Her speech at the Republican Convention may have been written for her by others, but the sense of those words were still all Sarah. And mostly nasty and condescending.
Biden, on the other hand, made me feel as though we'd be in good hands if he were near the helm. I'd be extremely worried about what the smart-ass attitude of a Sarah Palin could stir up in difficult encounters with foreign leaders and adversaries. I have no such uncertainty about Biden. Barack Obama would certainly be strengthened and enhanced as Captain with a Joe Biden as First Officer. I watched as the CNN audience meters showed the women tended to agree. The men seemed somewhat more taken with the pretty lady at the podium, but women weren't as impressed. Maybe I'm seeing what they're seeing. Biden seemed knowledgeable, in command of the issues, but human - even to the point of choking up for a split second when invoking painful memories of a lost wife and child. Unlike with Palin, I didn't feel as though he was trying to game me. It felt genuine and uncontrived, coming from a guy who's clearly been in the ring for a long time and lived to talk about a vast number of hard punches. He's been roughed up by bigger and badder than Sarah Palin could ever hope to be.