U.S. vice-presidential nominees Sen. Joseph Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska square off tonight in their only scheduled debate of the campaign for the White House. What do the candidates need to do? What mistakes must they avoid? What should the astute observer look for?
Palin-Biden debate strategy
It may be that for both Palin and Biden, the best thing to do is as little as possible.
If I were advising either one of the candidates, my advice would be to forget about trying to win. Losing this debate by being cautious will be far less costly to either one of the campaigns than committing a memorable, quotable, sound bite-able blunder. It’s much better for them to be conservative and take a few hits than to be drawn into a vulnerable position.
Some of the talking heads and consultants on TV may say that both candidates have to play to win, that they have to prove they could be president if called upon, but I disagree. The news cycle just won’t let this debate live long enough to matter much (again, unless one or both of the candidates commits a huge blunder). On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a controversial Wall Street bailout bill (now stuffed full of pork-barrel goodies by the Senate), and Friday also will bring a new batch of unemployment numbers. This all adds up to the fact that unless something spectacular comes out of tonight’s debate, the news media will be on to the next topic in just a few days, if not sooner.
The debate may still make the news on Monday, particularly if there’s good tape from the Sunday-morning talk shows to use as follow-up material. But the next debate between Barack Obama and John McCain is Tuesday, and even without that new debate, both campaigns are capable of pushing some new story — any new story — hard enough that by Tuesday, the debate will be way down the list.
Vice presidential debate: what to watch for
In spite of my belief that it would be in the interests of both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin to take a conservative approach to the debate, this is a very highly anticipated TV event that will draw a big audience. So, what should viewers expect to see tonight?
Palin’s awkward silences, inability to answer simple questions with specificity and tendency to dodge inquiries with folksy, tail-chasing palaver — strikingly reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s well-known verbal floundering, and captured artfully by Tina Fey — have become the stuff of pop culture. If Biden can manage to just leave her alone, it would seem that Palin has plenty of rope and knows how to tie her own knots.
On the other hand, some very successful politicians (Ronald Reagan comes to mind) have made pat, easily-remembered statements their stock in trade. And as I wrote earlier regarding Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, the Alaska governor seems to possess a real talent for enthralling the party base this way.
The bottom line for Palin is that I will be surprised if she doesn’t stick fairly closely to a rehearsed script peppered with a couple of the kind of lines that supporters see as down-home zingers and that make detractors roll their eyes.
Biden’s tendency to ramble on is almost as well-known as Palin’s inability to give a substantive answer. On the other hand, he’s a bright guy who knows foreign policy as well as anybody in the Senate — including John McCain. And he’s no stranger to the rough-and-tumble required to get laws passed. To ask him to not go after Sarah Palin is like asking a fighting bull not to go after a cape-waving first-time matador with a gammy leg. But he can’t go after her — there’s no way for him to win a contest of public perception, even if he gets her on the facts. If he attacks anyone, it has to be John McCain.
I expect Biden to be polite to Palin, but not overly deferential. If she says something stupid, he might quickly say that he’s not sure what she meant, but then he’ll quickly move on to his own answer, which will be more succinct than usual.
I would be really surprised if the Obama people let Biden go out on stage without knowing more or less what he was going to say, so I don’t expect him to come out with any wild statements on policy. However, his tendency to improvise the filler material around policy statements, such as when he said that FDR addressed the nation on TV after the 1929 stock market crash, may still produce some interesting moments.
The Padin-Biden vice-presidential debate time is set for 9 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. PDT.