Friday, October 3, 2008

A Tale of Three Winners, But Only One Win

Instant reactions to a debate, and to a lesser extent the morning-after reactions, are often tilted
very slightly in favor of the Democrat on the stage--precisely because debates are at least in theory all about substantive policy positions. You can't look the part of the superior policy craftsman if your platform consists of manipulating the low-information voters of the country into despising their own government. An analyst who had only the instant and overnight polls to go by would've concluded that George W. Bush narrowly lost all three debates with Al Gore and then, four years later, narrowly lost all three debates with John Kerry. (Viewed through the correct end of the telescope, I would argue that he lost, at most, two of these--the third debate against Gore and the first debate against Kerry.)

An awareness of this dynamic would have done nothing to ease the pressure on Governor Sarah Palin, facing as she was the enormous challenge of neutralizing her rapidly cementing image as a woman who can't name print media titles or supreme court decisions or give an answer about foreign policy that isn't about the eastern reaches of her home state. As the undercard on a ticket playing as many as eleven points behind last night, with the news getting worse almost by the hour (McCain inexplicably picked Thursday to pull out of Michigan, so that this dreadful news story could compete with whatever performance Palin managed to turn in), the woman who'd been unable to finish the word caricature eight days earlier found herself in an all but no-win situation. In essence she'd been saddled with the job of righting a vessel that was shipping water faster than her boss could bail it out, and with the built-in disadvantage alluded to above, Palin was in a quadruple-hole: the less-important actor on a soggy ticket that nearly always loses debates on first glance, with high personal negatives. Putting her in such a position was nothing short of electoral malpractice on the part of Team Crankypants--something for which they should be hammered in Obama/Biden stump speeches for the pure callousness it self-evidently projects.

That Governor Palin did as well as she did is an accomplishment of which all of us--Republican and Democrat alike--may be proud. It doesn't take agreement with her on... well... anything, to recognize that she didn't just out-perform relative to expectations, she kept the matter relatively close (a far higher standard, given what had been happening for the few days leading up to the event). She was too folksy for my weak constitutions for such nonsense, too quick to flash us a teeth-gritted and obviously fake smile, and way, way, way too quick to wink, particularly on the chances of her running-mate's expiration before the completion of their hypothetical term. But hey, and excuse me, a lot of us were wondering more or less out loud if she could do this without destroying what little chances her party had left for this election. It's not a retreat from our positions, and it's not patriarchal or sexist either, for we Democrats to congratulate her. I certainly could not have done as well as she did, under the same circumstances.

And here's the thing: Joe Biden was all that much better. After weeks of receiving essentially no press (good or bad), Senator Biden seemed to thrive on the unexpected light-footedness of his opponent, only getting stronger as the night unfolded. He'd taken the stage primed with the facts he needed to be swift, decisive, and straight to the point on every issue, and when it became apparent to him that he could deviate from the script without fear of Palin rebuttals, he availed himself with a brand-new variation on Team Blue's most profitable line of attack: He asked the Governor, pointedly and repeatedly, for examples of the ways in which John McCain would differ from George Bush. In doing so he ran straight at the other side's supposed strength (ordinarily a Karl Rove playbook page), in this case the assertion that McCain is a "maverick." And when Palin responded with the only resource she could--an allegation that Obama/Biden were wallowing in the past--Biden didn't take the bait of abandoning the comparisons to George W. Bush, but instead hit them even harder. (Lots of people in this country are going to vote on what has been happening over the past eight years, whether Governor Palin wants them to or not.)

The net beneficiaries of this level of substantive, spirited exchange were the American people, coming as it did on an evening when most of us were expecting a pointless and difficult-to-watch circus. Nobody who watched this debate can say in good faith that they do not understand the policy differences between these two tickets, and nobody who watched this debate can say in good faith that these politicians are all the same, pandering for the television camera, and all of them really just self-animated wind machines spewing unkeepable sound-bite promises back and forth. This debate, quite unexpectedly, was a debate--and all of us are winners to have been some small part of it by watching.

Problem is, when one side is down by five or seven or nine (or, in the case of one national tracker, eleven!) points, a debate after which we can all be proud of the performances of both candidates is really just about the second-furthest thing from helpful that could have happened for the trailing team. True, Governor Palin didn't make things any worse by repeating her Couric-interview performance, but neither did she do anything to reverse the trends in this race, all of which are as grim for her party as any I can remember dating at least as far back as '96. The press, which for weeks had been spinning every story with artificial tightness to fan their fall ratings, has suddenly awakened to the fear that they will seem behind-the-curve on the story of Obama's breakout, and have switched the tone of their reporting (e.g., McCain's pullout in Michigan) accordingly. The McCain message is getting noisier and noisier with bad performances, poor judgment, needless risks and short tempers. The polls themselves are lit-up as blue as the store-closing sale at a K-Mart:

In such an environment, playing Joe Biden to a near-draw wasn't going to be enough. It was by far and away the best the McCain people could've hoped for, but it wasn't going to be enough.

From here the path gets very, very difficult for McCain. The financial sector has turned this election into a referendum on Republican domestic policy, where he could only have won on the foreign policy side of the ledger. The self-inflicted wounds of the past two weeks have left McCain as the defender of his own play-calling, robbing him of the message that Obama is the one who will be reckless and dangerous to elect. And with each passing day, Team Blue widens its advantage on fundraising, ground-game, registered voters, and self confidence. McCain needs a dynamite-charge if he's going to win, and to have even hoped that it could be delivered by Governor Palin was an act far more patriarchal, far more disrespectful, far more sexist, than anything the rest of us could have dreamed up.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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