Sarah Palin won, though I suspect collegiate debate judges with the American Forensic Association would not have scored it that way.
She didn't win because she was smarter or more persuasive or more articulate. She wasn't. At times she was utterly incoherent, as when she answered a question about bankruptcy regulation with a jarring non sequitir about her experience on energy policy. Huh?
And more than once she seemed to settle back on material that she seemed to have memorized--"mayor, business owner, oil and gas regulator." My brother used a football analogy. "At times, it seemed Palin was like a rookie running back with lots of potential who is trying to remember the plays but who has a few nice runs because of the natural instinct, but then gets caught up over-thinking."
But these are quibbles. She won because to a vast majority of those who watched the debate tonight she likely came off as a plausible vice president. And that was all that mattered.
In my view, she did more than just survive. In between her flashes of confusion, Palin surfaced issues that put Joe Biden on the defensive or, at the very least, made him uncomfortable. And she had several moments where she scored clean hits on Biden and Barack Obama: on clean coal, on the patriotism of raising taxes, on Obama saying one thing to one group of voters and something different to another, on Biden criticizing Obama for his vote on troop funding in Iraq, when she reminded Biden that he himself said that he'd be privileged to run on a ticket with John McCain. When Biden complained that Republicans have taken to repeating the "drill, drill, drill" mantra, she owned it and gently corrected him. "I think the chant is drill, baby, drill." It was a clever turn, and judging from virtually every poll on the issue, it was politically very smart.
I will be shocked if there is not a quick consensus that Palin helped herself and the McCain campaign tonight. I will be equally surprised if there is not intense scrutiny of some of her gaffes or missteps, however minor. But I will not be surprised in the least if Joe Biden's many mistakes or misstatements are largely given a pass. He had several.
At one point Biden said: "Speaking of freedom being on the march, the only thing on the march is Iran." But no one had been speaking of freedom on the march.
Speaking of incoherence, at another point Biden declared: "I don't have the stomach for genocide in Darfur." When does he have the stomach for genocide?
One of the low moments of the debate came when Biden became emotional talking about his family tragedy. "The notion that somehow because I'm a man I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone, I don't know what it's like to have a child you're not sure (gulp) is going to make it. I understand."
I suspect that will resonate with some voters. It seemed like genuine emotion. But it was emotion in the service of a phony point. No one ever claimed--or even hinted--that Biden doesn't understand what it's like to raise two kids alone and it was disingenuous for Biden to suggest that Palin had done so.
In talking to McCain advisers over the past couple of days, they described a best-case scenario that would allow them to get past what everyone acknowledges has been a very difficult two weeks for McCain. First, they said, Palin has to survive the debate. She did more than that tonight. Second, the bailout bill has to pass on Friday. And it looks like that will happen.
The financial crisis is not going away and McCain has to be careful not to try to pivot too quickly in his eagerness to talk about other things. There is little doubt that most voters who go to the polls on November 4th will do so with the economy as their top issue. But as Barack Obama said when McCain suspended his campaign and considered postponing the first debate, presidents have to be able handle more than one issue at a time.
McCain needs to remind people that as great as these financial strains are, they would seem relatively inconsequential in the aftermath of a large-scale attack on America. Yes, such a return to war issues will make most of the pundit crowd in Washington shake their head and complain that McCain is going back to the bread-and-butter issue for Republicans these last seven years. But those issues matter to voters and McCain needs to remind them.
Interestingly, I thought Biden gave McCain several openings on that front tonight. At one point, as he laid out Obama's principles for intervention, Biden seemed to advocate invading Iran. "There are certain new lines that have to be drawn internationally," he said. "When country engages in genocide. When a country engages in harboring people who are killing our people--terrorists--and they will do nothing about it. That in fact--that country in my view and in Barack's view, forfeits their right to say you have no right to intervene at all." He was clearly talking about Pakistan. But the Iranian regime has been doing more than harboring people who are killing our people, they've been actively providing them assistance.
But the most interesting moment on foreign policy came when Biden seemed to say--in the middle of these financial strains--that national security and foreign policy concerns were the most important issues in the election. I happen to agree with him, but that's veering far, far away from Democratic talking points.
With about twenty minutes left in the debate, Biden described how an Obama presidency would change America. He touched briefly on economic issues before offering a litany of changes in foreign policy and national security. "A foreign policy that ends this war in Iraq," he said. "A foreign policy that goes after the one mission the American public gave the president after 9/11--to capture or kill bin Laden and to eliminate al Qaeda. A policy that would in fact engage our allies in making sure that we knew we were acting on the same page and not dictating. And a policy that would reject the Bush Doctrine of preemption and regime change and replace it with a doctrine of prevention and cooperation." It's all standard Democratic talking points. But most Democrats believe that the economy is and should be the most important issue. Biden does not. He ended his comments on our international posture with this. "And ladies and gentlemen this is the biggest ticket item that we have in this election."
John McCain agrees.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.