Sunday, October 5, 2008

The VP Debate That Didn't Live Up to the Hype

The long-awaited October 2nd debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin indeed produced record TV ratings for a VP debate. Usually, VP debates are for political junkies who can’t get enough talk about policy issues. But close to 70 million people tuned in to this event compared to only about 52 million for the long anticipated first McCain-Obama presidential debate.

But this was to be no ordinary VP debate. The curiosity factor over Palin was undoubtedly the big reason for people tuning in. In the few interviews that Palin gave, she gave what many (including some conservative commentators) thought were embarrassing answers. Would she crash and burn under the debate questioning? We all just had to tune in to find out!

And most viewers were happy to finally get the answer to that question. Seeing Palin maneuver her way safely through the debate, even if it meant ignoring some questions that were posed gave many a sense of relief. But for those of us who tuned in to finally hear Palin give some substantive answers to important questions, the debate was a tremendous disappointment that was not worthy of all the hype.

In my mind, there are three things that make the debate. One obviously is the candidates. We had a contest between an outgoing person (Biden) who enjoys talking about issues and policies going up against another outgoing person (Palin) who is clearly more comfortable avoiding issues and policy details in favor of talking mom and apple pie feel-good stuff to her conservative base. For better or worse, this came off as advertised.

But the other two important factors were the format of the debate and the moderator. Both were disappointing. The previous presidential debate allowed more than ample time for the candidates to rebut each other in addition to asking each other questions. In fact the moderator, Jim Lehrer did his best to get the candidates to talk to one another instead of just him. Getting the candidates to ask each other questions leads to more provocative and thoughtful exchanges. If the moderator were to ask some of those same questions, it would likely make that person appear to be biased which for most is something to avoid at all costs. Using this same format for the VP debate may have resulted in a tremendous improvement over what we got. A debate format that doesn’t really include follow-up questions as part of the structure makes it too easy for one or both candidates to evade answering questions that are not to their liking. And Governor Palin took full advantage of this by repeatedly resorting to rehearsed talking points to defend herself from these questions, sometimes completely changing the subject.

I can now say that I have watched more than a few political debates on TV. And in the overwhelming majority of them, I can’t recall getting too worked up either way about the moderators. Usually, these are solid professionals who do a competent if not necessarily an outstanding job. The moderator for the VP debate, Gwen Ifill of PBS certainly is on the list of solid professionals in most people’s book including mine. But Gwen may have been a victim of what is known in the sporting world as ‘working the officials’.

Although it was known at the time she was selected (and approved by both sides), Ifill’s book on emerging black politicians (including Barack Obama) scheduled for a January publishing was recently used by conservative commentators to
question Ifill's impartiality. Although, this was all rightly dismissed, Ifill was in the situation where any sharp questioning of Palin for whatever legitimate reason could be construed as bias so I believe that as a defense, she kept the questions away from provocative subjects as much as possible.

But more importantly, in a format for this debate where the candidates have more limited opportunities to ask follow-up questions of each other, the moderator must assume at least some of this duty. And with more time constraints on the answers, the moderator owes it to the viewers that the answers stay on topic as much as possible. When Palin was asked to respond to Ifill’s request to respond to Biden’s criticism of the McCain health care plan, she announced, “I would like to respond about the tax increases.” While to Ifill’s credit, she doggedly pursued Palin until she finally responded about health care, she should have maintained control by making Palin answer the question at hand about health care first before allowing her to speak on a totally different subject. And when Palin said, “And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear…”, this should have been a tip-off that Palin was trying to gain control over the running of the debate. This is where in my opinion, Ifill should have put her foot down and asserted her control as the moderator. But possibly fearing she may have come across as looking impartial, she let the remark slide by.

On the other hand there is this article written before the debate by Jack Shafer on,
Don't Blame Gwen Ifill If the Veep Debate Sucks which argues that the die was cast for this debate once the format was agreed to:

According to the New York Times, the McCain campaign pushed for this (format) arrangement, which is more restrictive than the two-minute-response, five-minutes-of-open-discussion format of the first McCain-Obama debate, because the looser "format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive."

The veep format at Washington University favors Palin, if Andrew Halcro is any guide to her debate techniques. Halcro repeatedly debated Sarah Palin in their contest for the job of Alaska governor in 2006. He writes in today's
Christian Science Monitor that Palin was the "master of the nonanswer" in debates. He continues: "During the campaign, Palin's knowledge on public policy issues never matured—because it didn't have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy."

So we know why the McCain campaign wanted this arrangement. But why did the Obama campaign agree to it? My guess is that having the lead and the recent momentum in the campaign, the Obama campaign also used this format to their advantage to help make sure Biden didn’t make any mistakes by either talking too long or getting into a verbal slugfest with Palin that could be viewed as bullying her.

Now the debate is over and Sarah Palin has at least acquitted herself as someone who can navigate a debate, albeit a tightly controlled one. Since she was able to do this, you would think that the McCain campaign would now finally allow her to interact more with the media and (shudder) answer their questions. But as of now, there are no plans for her to appear on any of the Sunday morning interview shows or any other news show between now and the election.

While of course the choice is theirs, if Palin is going to remain off-limits to media questioning, perhaps the media should consider responding in kind by cutting off some of the fawning media coverage of what sometimes appears to be little more than photo-op sessions. Earlier this year before Obama finally made his trip to the Middle East, McCain was taunting Obama almost daily in speeches about how long it had been since he visited Iraq. Perhaps Obama should now return the favor by asking each day how long McCain intends to shield his running mate from media scrutiny.

But many on both sides see Governor Palin as little more than a distraction from the real competition which is between the two presidential candidates. And with such a crucial choice in these difficult times to be made by the voters, she may well be doing us all a favor by keeping a low profile until the election. But if this latest news item from the campaign trail
Palin Says Obama Pals With Terrorists is any indication, that is little more than wishful thinking.

If nothing else, the debate gave us a brilliantly funny Saturday Night Live parody of the event which in case you missed it, you can watch here in
this video link.

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