THE BLOG
10/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sarah Palin May Really Win the Debate: What Biden Must Do to Prevent It

[Addendum since posting: Biden ought to wonder aloud if the windfall profits tax on oil companies in Alaska ought to be applied nationally. And, if Palin distinguishes it by stating they have no income tax, then aren't the rest of us, who pay for Alaska's oil, actually subsidizing Alaska with increased prices at the pump? That would be nice for the country to hear].

Sarah Palin may win the Vice-Presidential debate. This is not spin. Nor is it a matter of low expectations. The Republicans are doing a masterful job of lulling the Obama campaign into a false sense of security that she is very difficult to teach, and that he will win hands-down.

Yes, Joe Biden oozes gravitas, and in troubling times that can be appealing. And, yes, Palin projects school-girl naïveté. Her comments about world leaders all being "foreigners", that she has foreign policy experience because Putin rears his head and flies into the airspace in Alaska is not much different than the Miss Teen South Carolina who was an internet smash, rambling about "US-Americans." At least the latter was only 19, and not running for Vice-President with a 72 year-old man with a history of melanoma.

But, how much more clueless is Palin than was George W Bush running against incumbent Governor Ann Richards or Al Gore? And, they both had the same teacher: Karl Rove.

Biden does not need coaching on the issues. What he does need is a strategy for the debate. How is he going to handle the following advantages for Palin that play into her winning the debate:

1. The press is cowed. By all rights Palin should be asked to address examples of her naïveté. After all, she is running to be a heartbeat, or brain metastasis, away from the Presidency. But, what can they ask Biden in this respect that would make the debate seem "fair"? Nothing, really. Paradoxically, then, Biden's expertise may prevent Palin's naïveté from being exposed.

Gwen Ifill, the moderator, bright as she is, will not wish to embarrass Palin. It is uncomfortable to watch someone self-destruct. As absurd a Vice-Presidential choice as she is, the natural human emotion of not wishing to be present as someone else self-destructs will supersede the rational conclusion that it is for this very reason that she needs to be exposed.

Moreover, the McCain campaign has already redefined a "gotcha question" as anything that Palin flubs. And, since Palin knows almost nothing substantive about anything, any question that probes beyond the rambling nonsense is deemed "gotcha." A voter asks her about Pakistan, and she rambles herself into invading it, and that's "gotcha."

She will never be asked the one question she cannot answer: "explain."

And, never forget: the press tries to keep the race close, so that people will tune in. Hence, there is a vested interested in not embarrassing Palin.

2. Palin is being prepped to repeat just a few simple answers. When George W Bush debated Ann Richards, Rove had him just repeat 4 simple messages regardless of the question. Palin will toss in the words, "maverick", "reform", and "against the special interests" over-and-over again.

It will not matter whether she is coherent on most questions so long as she seems to be so on one. They will choose energy, and she will come back to that because it does touch each of us, as well as our whole economy. She will seem to be speaking knowledgeably, and will likely throw in a few details to demonstrate, as John McCain said, that "she knows more about energy than anyone in the country."

If Palin sounds coherent about one subject, people will impute similar coherence to her other answers, assuming they were not listening closely enough to what is actually gibberish. Moreover, by restricting her to a few simple, repeated answers, she may not wander off into the wild blue yonder, invading Pakistan and shouting at Putin's plane overhead in the process.

3. Much of Palin's nonsense is feel-good stuff. While Biden may have spoken knowledgeably, for example, about a particular foreign policy matter, it will come across as ponderous. By contrast Palin, unburdened from any expertise, will spout some stuff that feels good--"foreign leaders?", "sure, just bring'em to the United States, introduce them to ordinary Americans, and they will see the world as we do".

Nonsense, of course. But, which feels better, Biden or Palin?

Biden may lay out their plans for energy independence. Good, well-thought out, highly praised, with a strong financial commitment to back it up, and windfall profits' taxes to help pay for it. Makes sense, but, again, ponderous.

And, Biden will repeat "ladies and gentlemen" at least 100 times as he introduces and concludes his answers, boring everyone to tears.

Palin will respond by offering us Alaska (as if it is hers to offer, and as if the VP has to be from Alaska to exploit its resources, but people will hear that she has something unique to offer them, and they already know Alaska is part of the United States).

Again, which feels better?

What Democrats, especially like Biden, forget is this: People rarely recall what you say. What they remember is how you made them feel. If Palin is simple and makes them feel good, and Biden is ponderous, they will go for Palin.

So long as Gwen Ifill does not say, "explain" when Palin spouts nonsense--and it was only that question from Katie Couric that revealed her shallowness--Palin wins.

If Palin makes people feel good, if she demonstrates one area of knowledge above the 8th grade level, then the spin will take care of the rest of it. "The questions were 'gotcha'." "Biden was not pressed as hard". "She showed herself capable of dealing with energy, the nation's #1 problem."

4. Biden is cowed, and getting poor 'advice' from the media. Sarah Palin's gender and her cluelessness have encouraged the so-called pundits to paint Biden into a corner, that he must be especially gentle with her for fear of coming across as sexist, and thus turning off blue-collar women voters.

The first mistake is assuming that the goal is to 'win' the debate. It is not. The goal is to expose Palin for what she is, and thus make voters properly uncomfortable about her when they enter that voting booth. It is a perception that needs to be built over time.

Biden need not be snide or condescending (which would come across as sexist), and he ought not make the conclusory statements "she just does not understand." But, he can very firmly take the argument to her, individually, as McCain's representative and replacement, and as a symbol of the Republican brand. It may be that the immediate post-debate reaction is that Biden was too tough, or played 'gotcha,' but the goal is the longer term exposure of the absurdity of Palin.

When Palin refers to her executive experience, Biden should counter that George Bush said exactly the same thing in 2000, that Bush was Governor of Texas, population 24 million, for 6 years, and look at the mess he has caused: from Katrina, to Iraq, to the financial meltdown. She's been Governor of Alaska for 2 years, population 675,000. This is not nasty, nor sexist. It is a simple statement of fact. He should not shy away from it.

When Palin references her and McCain being "mavericks" that she will do repeatedly, Biden should respond with key topline issues on which they are not:

-An economic philosophy of deregulation, non-enforcement, and high risk poker with other peoples' money.
-Opposing healthcare as a right of all Americans, period.
-Continued taxcuts for the wealthiest Americans while at war and with gaping deficits.
-Privatizing social security
-Tax loopholes for oil companies, no money for alternative energy.
-An open checkbook, open-ended commitment to Iraq.
-Opposition in principle to a minimum wage law.


And, Biden should mention that she agreed first to cooperate fully with investigations into her conduct as Governor, that the McCain campaign is now shutting down. George Bush resisted oversight and accountability for 8 years. If she is not going to be accountable and transparent now, this will be another 4 years of hiding from the American people. Again, this is not nasty or sexist. It asks her to be accountable.

When Palin claims expertise on energy, Biden ought to emphasize that, whatever expertise she has is related to oil and gas, the country needs a far broader approach. Cite the Obama-Biden plan. He then ought to say: "we've had two oilmen in the White House for the last 8 years, and look what it got us," and "we should be concerned if the expertise in the White House favors oil over alternative energy sources, and if the VP candidate only recently admitted that global warming was in part man-made."

Reducing her claimed stature as an "expert" on energy will reduce the likelihood that viewers will give her a "pass" on the gobbledygook she confabulates on other subjects.

On creationism in the schools, Palin will invoke "freedom of speech" and "teaching the controversy." This is feel-good stuff, and must be countered by feel-not-so-good reality. Make it an economic competition issue...Biden should say he believes in evolution, and that there is no scientific controversy, just science vs. religion. If we try to get non-science taught as science in the schools, our children will fall further behind their competitors around the world. Parents can teach their children their religious beliefs at home, and teach that controversy if that is what they believe.

On foreign policy Biden should challenge McCain, and let her try defending McCain. She will get bollixed. He ought to mention, again, McCain's strategy of not sitting down with the Spanish Prime Minister. "John McCain does not want to talk to our enemies, and he seems not to want to speak with our friends either."

Let Palin try to defend McCain.

On Iraq, Biden should contrast the general positions: an open-checkbook, open-ended commitment to Iraq vs. a phased withdrawal by a date-certain that limits our exposure.

Biden ought to speak in grand principles, not ponderous detail: that we must restore our prestige abroad, as Barack Obama showed he could do with his summer tour, and John McCain has shown no ability to do. That we are most successful when we support and listen to our friends, talk but make clear our positions with our enemies, try in all cases for negotiated solutions, and remember what Yitzhak Rabin said: "you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends." (And, he should quote Rabin by name).

Bet that Palin is going to suggest that she has as much, or more, experience than Obama. Biden should counter that Obama has been in public office for 16 years, that he has been vetted by the American people, that he has dealt with issues of national security, and been grilled on foreign and domestic policy for 20 months now, and was chosen by more than 18 million people to be the nominee. Biden should add: "Governor Palin was chosen by one person, impulsively, and has not had a single press conference where she could be asked followup questions."

Unless Biden sticks to principles and not ponderous details, and unless he takes her on and holds her accountable -- contrary to the punditocracy that says he should leave her alone--unless he realizes that he is not there to score debating points, but to expose Palin for the shallow, uninformed person she is, that Palin will win the debate and her stature will be resurrected.

One more point: on abortion. Biden ought to say that he is Catholic, but he believes that an individual woman should have to right to determine whether to carry to term a pregnancy that arose from rape, whereas Governor Palin would have the GOVERNMENT force the woman to keep that child. That is not a place for the government.

Hopefully, Joe will avoid his "ladies and gentlemens," will speak in grand principles and not ponderous detail, and will not be shy about holding her accountable. If he does not, Palin will win the debate.

Heaven help us.

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