Letter from the Editor

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The VP Debate: Beats Watching the Dryer

* Like a baseball game, the political debates need a scoreboard...


/ Pilot-Tribune Editor

Hours after the vice presidential debate, I had heard from friends, colleagues and local residents from both sides of the political aisle, all absolutely convinced that their VP choice has resoundingly and completely kicked butt and won the day.

I looked around a bit, and the conservative media reported that Sarah Palin had "field dressed" Joe Biden on stage, for one example, while the liberal media suggested that Biden had deftly exposed Palin as an "attractive but ignorant" individual (not to mention opining that she showed up in "a tight stripper skirt and metallic eye shadow.")

Sides have been picked and few are willing or able to hear the other's ideas, let alone admit their side could be wrong on anything. Commentators pass out insults and rudeness like trick-or-treat candy; no fouls are called.

Imagine watching a ball game and then not being able to agree on who won it.

We need a scoreboard for debates - throw up a point for a good zinger or three for forcing an opponent to tap-out on an issue; subtract one for a factual error, spin doctoring or tiptoeing around the question. Would anyone break even?

I originally listened to as much of the debate as I could on the car radio, while driving around covering local events that night. I caught the segment on international issues, and based on sound alone, my first blush reaction was that Biden had clearly won. He corrected Gov. Palin often, spoke clearly, and gave detailed and authoratative responses. In fact, I felt a bit sorry for Palin - she's been in the national political arena for a grand total of five weeks, it hardly seems fair to throw her in against a guy who has been in Congress since Barack Obama was a sixth grader, to duke it out on the woes of the world.

After hearing my buddies on both sides so sincerely claiming complete victory, though, I had to see for myself, so I watched the full video online.

Interestingly, it comes off a little differently seeing the images as opposed to just hearing them.

This has to be the most interesting vice presidential comparison since, well, since ever. And it will probably be the most interesting until 1016, when it will be Lance Armstrong against Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just wait and see.

I would have been more likely in past years to watch sweatshirts going around in the dryer than to watch vice presidential hopefuls jaw-jacking on TV. Cheney scared me, Gore bored me, Quayle embarrassed me.

But this VP debate, I watched carefully, making notes, dissecting every wink and nod and bit of sassy body language with all that I recall from abnormal psychology and poly sci 101 - the same intense way I would more normally view "Rock of Love."

And I can only conclude, here, that in fact, all those folks I had heard from were right. They both won.

In fact, I get the feeling that both Biden and Palin did exactly what their respective parties had programmed them to do.

Biden came off as the ultimate political professional, smooth and informed and confident, if strangely unable to pronounce "characterized." It is just what the ticket of the relatively inexperienced upstart national leader Barack Obama needs; and my Republican friends just can't stand it.

Palin came off as the plain-talking soccer mom far removed from the recent foibles of Washigton politics, all middle class and youthfully maternal. It is just what the cranky old warhorse John McCain needs to balance out his campaign, and my Democrat cronies despise every moment of it.

There wasn't any winner or any loser, because neither party was there to win or lose. It was all about image creation.

Let's face it - these two want to be VPs - even if they are elected they have almost no real power to form policy or sway legislation on anything (unless there were to be a tie vote in the Senate, of course.) They can spout about what they would do to change the world until the moose come home, but barring that "heartbeat away" scenerio, they are no more likely than Barney the purple dinosaur to achieve significant change in our world through the role of this office.

And the scorecard?

Biden was on his game, using his experience to slice apart Palin's more simplistic statements, but doing it with a congenial Pepsodent smile. With not a silvery hair out of place, you couldn't help but think exactly what you were supposed to think: Here's a guy who could step in tomorrow and we'd be okay.

Palin didn't try to compete with Biden at his own game. Blinking her loose bangs out of her eyes and flashing the coy smile and a "say it ain't so Joe," she held her own against a political all-star by out down-homing him.

She is a master at dropping those "g's" ("the economy is hurtin') when it serves the purpose, and throwing in a "doggone it" or a reference to "Joe Sixpack" here and there, and throwing out the term "maverick" so often it must have been pre-programmed into her frontal lobe with a ballpeen hammer.

She has something though, a certain spark that lights a room, perhaps as a young Bill Clinton did. If they all came to Storm Lake tomorrow, I'm betting that Palin might outdraw either Obama or McCain.

At times she seemed to charm even Biden.

I did have to chuckle at her repeated self-characterization as "middle class all of our lives," though.

According to the Washington Post, she and her husband took in almost a quarter of a million last year, plus retirement benefits. Their assets are listed for tax purposes between $1-$2.3 million, they live in a house valued at between $550,000 and $1 million, have an airplane, at least four watercraft, and five properties including 35 acres of lakefront forest, retirement accounts said to be valued between $115,000-$250,0000, and they have fishing lease rights worth up to $100 grand.

I'm not sure politicians' idea of middle class would be the same as yours or mine.

As for a winner, it makes for interesting watercooler conversation, since neither Iowa or Iowa State football is something to crow about just now.

Even if I told you there was an obvious victory, it wouldn't change anybody's mind.

So suffice to say that Biden and Palin both come out ahead, because they concocted exactly the images they were going for, and appealed to exactly the target audiences they were assigned to court. Game on.

Make no mistake, every syllable, swerve, joke, grin or coquettish wink was researched, planned, practiced and focus-grouped. Very little is candid or accidental at this stage of the game.

At the very least, they are making an uninteresting position fascinating. Who would have thunk that the best skit on Saturday Night Live in years would be a re-acting of some political debate between a career politician and a soccer mom?