Thursday night's vice-presidential debate was the most hyped one in decades, as it should have been. In a contest that is usually boring and inconsequential, this election year’s running-mate debate was supposed to be two professional cringe-inducers competing for which could best damage their ticket’s campaign.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate, has effortlessly garnered the kind of late-night comedy ridicule that George W. Bush took years to earn. And with Senator Joe Biden expected to crush Palin in knowledge and debating abilities, he only had room to go down, and of anyone, the man from Scranton who’s known for verbal gaffes was the man to do it.
An estimated 70 million Americans tuned in Thursday night. To put that in perspective, the Obama-McCain debate drew just over 50 million, and the convention speeches peaked at 40 million. But what the viewers saw was a frustratingly lame sequence of mini-speeches because of a lack of a challenge presented by moderator Gwen Ifill.
Ifill, who like last week’s moderator Jim Lehrer, is a PBS personality. The difference is that conservatives castigated Ifill during the days prior to Thursday’s debate for being an outright Obama supporter.
Their evidence? Ifill is promoting her new book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which is set to hit shelves on January 20th, 2009, the exact day of the next president’s inauguration. You can’t blame conservatives for throwing a fit, like commentator Michelle Malkin did in a pre-debate column. “There is nothing ‘moderate’ about where Ifill stands on Barack Obama. She's so far in the tank for the Democratic presidential candidate, her oxygen delivery line is running out,” Malkin wrote.
Alas, the onus was on Ifill to prove her objectivity while moderating the VP debate in St. Louis. To the detriment of the viewers’ knowledge of their candidates as well as their entertainment, she overreacted and dished out the easiest and most open-ended questions she could find.
Faced with questions that began with “what is your stance on…”, Sarah Palin was able to regurgitate the volumes of campaign talking points she had been trained to memorize at the week of debate boot-camp she endured at John McCain’s, I mean, one of John McCain’s houses. She looked into the camera and let it all out as if reading a teleprompter. Joe Biden, terrified of looking condescending or elitist, chose not to call her out and rather countered with a grin and campaign talking points of his own.
Without any challenge from Ifill or Biden, Palin was even able to freely misunderstand or completely ignore Ifill’s questions. “I may not answer the questions the way you want me to,” Palin said. What she meant was, “I’ll answer the questions I feel like answering, and the rest I’ll respond to with folksy charm, talking points, or attacks on the media.”
Ifill asked under what circumstances they would use America’s nuclear weapons, and Palin responded with the nonsensical “nuclear weaponry…would be the be all, end all of just too many people,” followed by a tirade about how dangerous regimes shouldn’t have them.
Ifill asked what they thought their Achilles’ heel was, which Palin either ignored or misunderstood because she talked about how much wonderful executive experience she had. She was not challenged on either occasion.
People aspiring for one of the most important elected offices in the world should be held to a much higher standard. Ifill was not the person to do it, and she should have been replaced. Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly would have at least kept the would-be VPs on their toes.
Katie Couric was able to stump Palin last week in one-on-one interviews because she pressed the Alaska Governor for specific examples. Whether it was examples of publications Palin read to keep informed or examples of McCain supporting economic regulation in the past, blank answers told all. Seriously, who answers “I read all of them”? It’s the type of answer you give when you’re pretending to know something about a subject.
Alas, Gwen Ifill was moderating, and it was an easier than expected night for Palin and Biden. The Delaware senator was easily stronger on the issues, a factor that was apparent during discussions on the environment and foreign policy. Biden did manage to pounce on Palin’s assertion that the causes of climate change are irrelevant and on her inability to distance her policies from Bush.
Regardless, for all the hype surrounding the supposed “big test” for the hockey mom and the gaffe-man, I feel like I want my money back.
Alex Leduc is a freelance columnist and blogger, as well as a journalism student at Concordia University. All his political columns are available at www.alexleduc.com