How bad is it for the Republicans? Many actually are happy about Sarah Palin's performance last night. Apparently, all they want from their vice president is the ability not to fall off a stage and start speaking in tongues. Because Palin was pretty pathetic. Or folksy. But she did manage to complete many sentences, and many of them were decipherable. But, as noted last night, the snap polls showed that although the viewers thought she had exceeded their obviously extremely low expectations, they also thought she was soundly trounced. And the majority still thinks she is unqualified to be vice president. For which, Republicans today are smiling. Desperation is not pretty.
After Ronald Reagan's first debate with Walter Mondale, Republicans had been a bit worried. Reagan had stumbled and bumbled, and Mondale had gotten a slight boost in the polls. A second bad debate, and Mondale may have actually been able to get into the race. Such was the thinking. But in preparation for the second debate, Reagan's handlers cleverly told him not to bother trying to answer any questions that would require even momentary efforts at conscious thought. He was told to repeat his talking points, over and over, even if they weren't particularly relevant to the questions. What he said wouldn't matter, just so he sounded lucid. And they were right. He did as told. And it worked. He could be criticized for being off point, but he couldn't be criticized for babbling. Which was more than enough for the pundits and the voters. Clearly, McCain's people used the same model, with Palin.
Palin's most honest line, last night, was this one:
And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.
Which some took as evidence that she is as arrogant as Bush. Which she may be. She's certainly at least as ignorant. And coupled with her bizarre explanation of her view on the power of the vice presidency- which seems to accord perfectly with Cheney's above-the-law imperiousness, and is the logical extension of her abuses of office in Alaska- well, she may be even more frightening than she'd already seemed to be. Cheney's psychosis with Bush's brain? How comforting.
But the real key to that answer is that it revealed her entire strategy, throughout the debate. When she didn't understand a question, or have a ready talking point, she simply followed the Reagan model and answered the question she would have liked to have been asked. Even if such had nothing at all to do with what she actually had been asked. And that's how she survived the debate. Because the rules had already been changed, to accommodate the McCain camp's justifiable fear that Palin otherwise would, indeed, self-destruct. Specifically:
At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running mates.
McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive.
Because actually having to try to think does leave Palin on the defensive. So, by design, there was very little follow-up, last night. And that was how Palin survived. In contrast, her disastrous interview with Katie Couric had gone something like this:
Palin: Stock talking point.
Couric: Attempt to get Palin to clarify, elaborate, or simply answer the question as asked.
Palin: Incomprehensible blither.
In the debate, the exchanges usually ended after the talking points. Which were left to hang there. Keeping Palin safe. Reform, reform, reform. Maverick, maverick, maverick. With an occasional wink that was supposed to be cute or charming or something, but which, from someone who may soon be a heartbeat away from the presidency, was actually a bit creepy. But the consensus is that she lived to lie another day. Although she did not by any honest measure prove herself capable of holding the second most important job in the land. She only proved that she could stay on script, and with the right format, not humiliate herself while on national television. Which seemed an improvement. But it did not sway the voters, and it did not help her campaign. It did not help McCain. It just wasn't another complete disaster. And for that, many Republicans today are smiling.
Did I mention that desperation is not pretty?