Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

In advance of tomorrow's Live Blogging coverage of the Biden v. Palin Vice-Presidential Debate (to be rivaled only by Live Blogging coverage of when the Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants, and later rivaled by Live Blogging coverage from an actual first date---automatically making it the first and last), I thought I'd offer some reasons as to why, despite my hopes, Sarah Palin will not in fact be as awful as many people expect her to be.

Some of my conservative and more moderate friends (countable on one hand) might question why I'd hope for someone to fail in the first place---judging that a rather petty and partisan approach. Quite simply, I am petty and partisan. Beyond that, however, the real reason I would hope for her to fail in the debate is that she is, by any sane assessment, beyond redemption as a candidate for the office of vice-president. There is nothing she can say or do in the debate that would justify McCain having picked her. There is nothing she can say or do in the debate that would justify her having agreed to be McCain's selection. And there is nothing she can say or do in the debate that would justify those whose support of her candidacy has been unwavering, no matter how many times she has demonstrated herself to be utterly unsuitable for this job. Except there is.

Debates, except in high school and college, are rarely about who wins or loses. The pundits love to grade the debaters and declare a winner or a loser, but debates are about expectations. The worse debater is, effectively, given a handicap to level the playing field, as in golf or bowling. It doesn't matter if Biden shows up and bowls a 275, because Palin's handicap is + 250. She just needs to show up and make sure the ball goes down the right lane to ensure a competitive outcome. Worse, Palin's handlers have insisted the debate be structured so as to have shorter Q&A periods and less interaction between the candidates. This would be the equivalent of the "baby bumpers" used to prevent gutter balls. Also, with just one 90-minute debate, there's very little chance that Gwen Ifill would be able to pick the one question that Palin has not been prepped for. Word has it she has been "cramming" these last few days, like a high school student studying for an algebra test. In short, the debate is likely to feel highly scripted.

And let's not forget about her style. She is, after all, a professional speaker. She has debated numerous times in other elections and is comfortable in front of cameras. She is in many ways the triumph of style over substance. This worked for me in high school debates with mom and pop judges. If I saw the judge was someone other than an ex-debater or grad student, I would just tone down the logos and up the pathos, like playing a Rhetorical Instrument. The reality is that there are far more mom and pop judges and those are the people she's going to wow.

If Palin can avoid major gaffes, and if she can remember the answers she's currently committing to memory, there's every reason to think her performance will be heralded as a major success---a performance that many of her supporters will use to try and whitewash her embarrassing appearances of the last few weeks.

Obama could probably skate under, but she just has to go over. The only way she could repeat the unmitigated disasters that were her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric would be if she tried to make up for all her previous mistakes in one super-duper-gee-whiz answer. Fortunately for her, she won't have that much time.

I'm not sure if this debate ultimately matters in terms of the outcome of the election. It will be lampooned (as much for Biden's performance as Palin's), written about, discussed, polled and referenced ad nauseum. But the most significant thing that could happen is that Palin redeems herself enough to have a viable political future. And that would be fine---provided that future is in local politics.


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