THE BLOG
11/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Answering the Unanswerable: Advice to Biden

Everybody and his or her brother or sister (and that's everybody!) will be offering advice to Joe Biden on how to comport himself Thursday night in his much-anticipated/ dreaded debate with Sarah Palin. So why should I be any different?

Below, some last-minute ideas, offered free of charge and worth at least twice that. But first we must address the central challenge that confronts any office-seeker on the eve of a national debate against an opponent of Palin's qualities:

Do we want to make her seem ignorant, or insane?

Anyone? No? Well, I'm not surprised, because it was a trick question. The answer is, neither. Anyone at all capable of correctly appreciating the depth of this woman's ignorance has already done so, and has either decided they care about it or they don't. As for "insane," Palin is too attractive and poised, in that steely, bullet-proof, beauty-contestant way, to behave in a manner openly indicative of mental dysfunction.

Is, then, all lost? Is Joe Biden doomed to suffer a TKO, to be correct on all the facts but still "lose," as some of the (useless) pundits put it, "on points"? Not necessarily.

One plausible goal to which he might aspire is to goad Palin into demonstrating, not that she is out of her mind, but that she is out of her league. (Yes, yes, I know: Everybody knows that already, too. But there may be a few undecideds susceptible to being reminded of it.) How?

Not by correcting her or flatly declaring that her Seasonal Vegetable Medley of proudly-spouted clichés, talking-point truisms, patriotic-sounding boilerplate, and frankly incomprehensible yammerings are "wrong." Rather, Biden should assume the role of the cheerily befuddled colleague, the sympathetic peer who can't quite get a handle on whatever chirpy gibberish the Governor has just emitted.

But rather than ask her to repeat or clarify her answer, he should good-naturedly discredit it. And, in so doing, he should attack, not Palin, but her running mate.

Thus:

IFILL: Next question-and Governor Palin, we'll start with you. The government bailout of the financial industry has proven to be enormously controversial. What is your understanding of the underlying causes of this crisis, and how do you think the Federal government should address it?

PALIN: You know, Gwen, all of us, on Wall Street and Main Street, the outrage, because people are hurting no matter what, and it's terribly, terribly important that there be equity among the taxpayers as well as both the bad actors and the good actors in the financial community, which is why actor's equity is so important at a time like this. In Alaska we learned that it's a question of doing due diligence before you get a done deal done. You've got local banks, Fannie Farmer, Freddie Mercury, Bernie Mac, and the whole Banker Bernanke wing of the Fed. And that's just not fair. You know, there's an expression economists like to use: "Follow the money." Senator McCain and I both agree that our financial markets and our economy are intimately connected, so that a solution can only be workable if it's feasible and makes sense for the American people.

IFILL: Senator Biden?

BIDEN: Hoo boy. Wow. I...I have to apologize to the Governor. I just can't keep up. Her explanation is way over my head--although what I think she said was, that the absence of regulation that John McCain has championed his entire political life has caused this crisis--which is true--but that the solution to it somehow is even less regulation. She couldn't have said that, because that's just silly and absurd. Or maybe she did say that and I'm just too dense to pick up on it. If she did say it, well, she's entitled to her opinion--although it's not an opinion any sensible person running for Vice President should have. In any case, here's my opinion: Republicans come into power, they eliminate regulation in the financial industry, and we get a crisis. The savings and loan scandal. This current emergency. And every time, they turn to the taxpayer to bail them out. Is it hypocrisy? Of course it is. That's the least of it. It's also theft... (etc.)

Okay, I got carried away with Biden's "answer" toward the end there. But you see the point: When your opponent talks in enigmas and nonsense, you can't refute her, but you don't have to. You use it as a setup to a) tell everyone what she "really" said, and b) why she's just slightly off. You do this "respectfully," the way arbiters and instructors of etiquette teach us to assert ourselves over people we dislike by cloaking it in a smile and in expressions of deference.

A couple won't leave even after dessert has been served, coffee has been drunk, and everyone else has departed? You don't say, "Hey. You two. Get the fuck out already." Rather, as you herd them toward the front door, you murmur, "I'd love it if you two stayed all night, but I'm sure you've got a busy schedule tomorrow and I don't want to keep you."

So there ya go, Joe. Defer to the lady but hijack her answers. The very vacuity of her replies provides a blank canvas on which you may--and should--paint a portrait of her as you see fit. Her fans--the ones who aren't really aware that her answers are nonsense--won't know what you're doing. If they don't know what she did say, how can they know what she didn't?

Bear in mind, too, that (unlike at a political rally or the RNC convention) she won't have an adoring audience to pause for, to mug for, to draw energy from, to preen and dimple and snark at. So a lot of her rhetorical moves may, in and of themselves, arrive D.O.A.

When Palin was chosen, the immediate cliché in Democratic circles was, "Biden is going to eat her alive in the debate." As he would--and bon appetit--if intelligence and facts mattered. But Palin's popularity offers ample proof that--go be shocked--they don't. People like her style. You can't refute a style (that's what "bullying" means), but you can acknowledge it as a pretext for controlling all the substance.

Cross-posted, as always, at What HE Said.

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