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How Sarah Palin Can Win The Debate

First Posted: 11/01/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:45 PM ET

Palin Debate

Tomorrow night's debate may be the most hotly anticipated meeting of potential vice presidents ever, sure to be watched by millions and garner eye-popping ratings. This is largely because it could be one of the greatest catastrophes ever broadcast. Certainly Democratic Veep contender Joe Biden brings a long history of turning extemporaneous speaking into something of a seat-of-the-pants, daredevil event. But the main attraction is, obviously, GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Her recent interviews with Katie Couric, the essential Frost/Nixon of our looming lurch into fiscal insolvency and overall idiocracy, have set the stage for what most people expect to be one long, messy field-dressing of the English language by John McCain's soul-mate.

The conventional wisdom is that the bar is set so low, as long as Palin manages to escape the evening without setting fire to Gwen Ifill, her performance can be spun as a historic win. But seeing as some of the harshest anti-Palin rhetoric yet comes from conservatives, I don't believe this hopeful plan is going to work. There have been two schools of thought on how to prevent a complete disaster. One says, Palin needs to be in hardcore debate prep with the McCain insiders in an attempt to turn Eliza Doolittle into a seasoned speaker of neo-con gibberish. The other school preaches, "Let Palin be Palin," a hands-off approach that will rely on the candidate's own homespun sense and sensibility to carry the day.

Neither tactic is likely to work. There is just not enough time on the clock to bring about the former transformation, and we've seen what the latter, laissez-faire approach yields -- fodder for Saturday Night Live cold opens. There is, however a third way. It's a way that will work. It's a way that will win.

To understand the third way strategy, one must first examine how Sarah Palin got to this point. Months before McCain made his choice, Palin was on the radar of very few people, most notably Bill Kristol. At the time, people, in general, liked Palin very much, because why not? There was nothing to not like! And Kristol's endorsement probably earned her some measure of fatalist sympathy. When she arrived on the scene, it was at the Republican National Convention, and she came equipped with a fantastic speech that struck just the right balance of red-meat conservatism and quotes from noted anti-Semites. It was a great first impression.

But the whole process of getting to know Sarah Palin exposed Palin's greatest flaw: she's precisely the sort of person who should never be subjected to a "getting to know" process. Over time, her recycled speech wore poorly and her attempts at moving on to new rhetorical pastures have been disastrous. Her overall favorable rating dipped precipitously. And even in Alaska, her once impressive 80 percent approval rating fell to a more quotidian 60 percent. That's bad, considering that in Alaska, just knowing how to make fire spots you forty approval points, right off the bat.

And now the debate looms, and if Palin isn't careful, she's going to run the risk that America might get to know her even better.

What's to be done? Well, when all else fails, its best to keep things basic. Focus on the task at hand. Embrace the simplicity of the debate rules. And in those debate rules, Sarah Palin will find her salvation. For while those rules govern the topic of conversation, and the length that each participant may speak, nowhere is it written that Sarah Palin actually has to say anything. So that's how she wins. By saying nothing. By standing there, stock still, with a look of determination screwed to that lovely face, and not uttering a blessed word, for ninety minutes.

My opinion on this matter is well-informed from my previous career as a public speaking teacher. Which is to say, I taught two semesters of Introduction to Public Speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. As a grad student. Mainly for rent money and access to the faculty dining lounge. And, look, yes: many of my charges were otherwise bright undergraduates from foreign countries who believed "Introduction to Public Speaking" meant that I was going to literally teach them English. Those students, obviously, made a profound and terrible mistake. But as far as Palin is concerned, I am an ideal authority, because I was a salt-of-the-earth public speaking teacher, not some elitist, like Cicero.

One of the things I worked hard at teaching my students, so as to overcome their fear of speaking in public, was that it was okay to lose their train of thought while speaking extemporaneously. What wasn't acceptable was making pointless utterances while finding their way back. Repeated "uhms" and "ers" tend to undermine the credibility of a speaker, because they make commonplace lapses in thought audible. However, in an ironic and beautiful twist to public speaking technique, it turns out that simply taking a silent pause on those occasions of uncertainty not only manages to prevent an audience from forming a negative impression, it's actually a net gain for the speaker. Say "uhm" four or five times, and the interest of the audience wanes. But when a speaker fixes their gaze on the middle distance and says absolutely nothing, people become transfixed! They lean forward in their chairs. The atmosphere becomes charged with importance. And often, the next words out of the speaker's mouth end up more freighted and memorable than if the speaker managed to keep his or her thoughts on track in the first place.

Seeing as every single one of Palin's off-the-cuff orations has amounted to a "pointless utterance" -- one long, annoying "Uhhhmmm" -- it stands to reason that her best bet is silences of epic length. Naturally, some of you reading this are likely to be skeptical. You're probably thinking about some of those blank stares and uncomfortable pauses that Palin has already offered in interviews. But the problem with those pauses wasn't that they were too long. Rather, it's that they weren't long enough. The art of the long pause has a sort of "uncanny valley." Pause briefly, and people fixate on the speaker, wondering what might come next. Pause a little longer, and the audience starts to worry, wondering if the speaker is daft. But if you pause for an even longer period of time, people start to imagine that something amazing and special is unfolding before their eyes, and they start to think, "Hey. Maybe this speaker is BRILLIANT!"

Let's face it: a steadfast, mute, Sarah Palin is just the sort of dignified presence the erratic McCain campaign needs at this point. But more to the point, by saying nothing at the debate, Palin can reverse all of the negatives that have come from our growing familiarity with her. Back when we knew nothing about Palin, we liked her! It's only when she started adding to the body of work entitled, "Things We Know About Sarah Palin" that everything started to go in the crapper. Tomorrow night's debate represents a great opportunity to offset that. By not responding to every question, Palin will be adding a voluminous amount of material to "That Which We Don't Know About Sarah Palin." And the more we don't know about Sarah Palin, the better off she'll be.

Besides, if Palin comes to the debate Thursday night and doesn't say anything, at the very least, McCain is going to win the news cycle. And in the end, isn't that what's most important to the McCain camp?

And man, if you think Joe Biden is worried about debating Palin now -- with all of her confounding ovaries!- - just you watch when she shows up and says nothing! What on earth will Biden do then? Any attempt to even voice a sentence -- even say hello! -- is going to look like the Iron Chauvinist Fist of the Patronizing Patriarchy Patrol. When you think about it, faced with a silent and resolute Palin, the best strategy for Biden would be to shut his mouth too! Imagine that: a vice-presidential debate in which neither participant says a single word!

I don't know about you, but I would very much like to liveblog this!

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