Watching last night’s reality TV show — the one billed as a debate — I appreciated once more how essentially old-fashioned I am. It has to do with reading, and with linear logic, and with the grammatical structure of the English language, topics of marginal interest in the best of times. So I’ll set aside the first draft of my critique; perhaps it will wind up as a footnote on the About page.
Three general observations.
- It may have been agreed-upon constraints of the format; it may have been preemptive sniping from Republicans; it may have been previously-unremarked ineptitude. Whatever the reason, Gwen Ifill was a lousy moderator, failing to impose discipline, neglecting to follow up, and refusing to challenge repeated evasions and non-answers.
- Sarah Palin was notably less bad than she had been in previous encounters with questions. Still, at least half the time — by my rough count — she was babbling. Had the event been moderated by Katie Couric rather than Gwen Ifill, I believe Palin would have gone as haywire as she did in the CBS interviews.
- Joe Biden was effective, getting stronger as he went along. It is consistent with what we are seeing as the Obama strategy: stay calm, stay focussed, stay on course. He had far more to lose than Palin; he lost nothing.
Biden’s strongest moment, the point at which he clearly took control and held it, came near the end, when he talked about his own personal tragedy.
One point about that moment is that it not only strengthened Biden, it also — so gently that it may not have registered consciously — it also took back a large piece of the discussion which Palin had seemed to own. Look at the context. Palin had just said
PALIN: But it wasn’t just that experience tapped into, it was my connection to the heartland of America. Being a mom, one very concerned about a son in the war, about a special needs child, about kids heading off to college, how are we going to pay those tuition bills? About times and Todd and our marriage in our past where we didn’t have health insurance and we know what other Americans are going through as they sit around the kitchen table and try to figure out how are they going to pay out-of-pocket for health care? We’ve been there also so that connection was important.
There’s the heart of Palin’s appeal to middle America. Hockey mom, raising kids, paying bills, the subliminal “I share your pain.” And Biden hit back — gently, as I said, but ever so forcefully — with “Hey, lady, you want to talk tough times? You want to talk family tragedy? You want to talk raising kids? Here I am.“
I think that’s the moment, and the feeling, which gives the evening to Obama and Biden. They didn’t need a big win, they only needed to break even. They did better than break even.