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As Palin Refused To Answer Questions, Ifill Should Have Pushed Back

11/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The minute Sarah Palin tried to take the VP debate hostage by announcing she would not be "answering the questions the way the moderator would like," the moderator needed to set her straight. But Gwen Ifill seemed reluctant to rein in Palin, instead allowing her to evade question after question by offering up one rehearsed platitude after another. Joe Biden was quick to challenge Palin on the issues, but he was not in a position to say "Hey, you never answered the question!" That would be the moderator's job, to push back and push for some real answers, not slick evasions wrapped in the "aw shucks, you betcha" patois that Palin wears as some sort of badge of authenticity.

But for some reason, Ifill failed to push back. Perhaps it was the format of the debate itself, in which Ifill posed a question to each candidate and then allowed the other a couple of minutes to respond. The pace was energetic and rapid, Ifill had a lot of ground to cover and, with one eye on the clock, she may have felt compelled to move on to the next question. She did manage to cut Palin off at one point with a curt "time's up," but she never really confronted her with the fact that Palin was failing to actually answer so many questions.

Or perhaps it was a case of Ifill being somewhat cowed by pre-debate allegations from the right that she is biased towards the Obama-Biden ticket simply because she is writing a book about black politicians. There's no way to know what was in her mind, of course, no way to know whether a conscious or even subconscious fear of being accused of bias prompted her to pull her punches. Personally, I find it hard to believe Ifill would be intimidated by pre-debate blather from the blogosphere, or Fox News, for that matter. She has a long and distinguished record as a tough journalist who is not afraid to ask tough questions. But for whatever reason, the debate got away from her and Palin got away with passing off folksy platitudes as substitutes for substance.

Too bad. Palin was obviously well-rehearsed and met the 'better-than-expected" test, which isn't saying much since expectations were fairly low. But the reason Katie Couric was able to reveal Palin's serious deficiencies as a candidate was because she repeatedly challenged Palin's indecipherable answers to her questions, pushing for - yes, some straight talk.

Palin's folksy approach clearly works with a lot of people. But when it comes across as rehearsed, it sounds like a gimmick. Last night, at one point, she uttered, "Say it ain't so, Joe," a line that landed with a thud because it seemed to come from out of nowhere, completely out of context. She had clearly rehearsed the line, perhaps hoping it would become the catchphrase of the evening. But instead of sounding authentic, it smacked of artifice.

Biden, on the other hand, was at his most authentic and affecting when he passionately spoke of his years as a single father of two sons, one of whom is now in Iraq. When his voice broke, briefly, during the telling, there was nothing rehearsed or artificial about it.

Straight talk will come out, it seems, even if the moderator fails to insist on it.