[The V.P. Debate] ... the winner is Gwen Ifill. I'll admit I've got a thing for Ifill--she always strikes me as absolutely genuine, and she's just so damn good at her job. She kept this debate going right on schedule without once losing her cool, and so deftly handled topic changes that the viewer hardly noticed that Sarah Palin kept answering questions that had not yet been asked. (Also, Ifill's smile makes me feel all warm inside, as if everything's going to be OK, and like she runs such a tight, friendly ship that one of her intern assistants is about to take a batch of cookies out of the oven at just the right moment.)
Thankfully, Palin announced from the get-go that she wasn't even going to try to answer the questions, but preferred to speak "to the American people" directly. This was wise, not only because Palin tends to go off the rails when she's not reciting from a memorized statement, but, by comparison with Joe Biden's off-the-cuff style, Palin will play well with those who expect everybody on TV to exhibit a glossy, anchor-desk exterior. (Palin's pronunciation of "nuclear" was interesting--any news anchor knows how to pronounce it, and Palin managed it once or twice, seemingly by mistake. The rest of the time, she made a studied effort to say "nucular." Was it an attempt to prove that strange, belabored GOP talking-point that the "alternate pronunciation" favored by George W. Bush actually exists?)
Still, between McCain-bashing sessions, Biden was the only candidate to show any interest in the actual questions. Astute viewers--former debate-squad geeks, mainly--will recognize that there is a considerable amount of intellectual flexibility beneath Biden's rumpled exterior. He thinks about things, and his principles seem based on reason rather than ideology. To avoid disaster, Palin had to cling rigidly to her speechwriters' prepared material; Biden is better at extemporizing, but he had to avoid losing his cool and reacting with Al Gore-like huffs and grimaces whenever Palin cheerfully blurted out some GOP-style whopper about economic policy or the Iraq War.
I listened to the first 15 minutes of the debate on KUER, on my way home from work, and viewed the remainder at home on KUTV-2--so I missed out on features like CNN's pleasure graph, which measured from moment to moment how viewers of both sexes were enjoying the onscreen action. Both Democrats and Republicans, of course, will claim victory.
Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to having an agenda--I want Barack Obama to be president. But, to be honest, I didn't hate Sarah Palin. She really is likable, if you don't think about what she's actually trying to do. I still fear her as much as I fear any stealth-Evangelical Manchurian candidate but, if it were possible to take her at her word, she would be the type of person I wouldn't mind having a beer with. (Of course, by far, the best evening of all would be margaritas with Gwen Ifill.) Unfortunately, we've seen where that kind of voting gets us.
They both are very nice candidates, and, even though the likability contest was obviously stacked against Biden, he's a fighter. He got in his licks. He absolutely hammered the Bush administration on the money it's spent on the made-up war in Iraq vs. the justifiable war in Afghanistan. He scored the evening's highest emotionally charged moment discussing the struggles of American families in his statement, "I know what its like to raise a child where you are not sure he's going to make it." His criticism of Dick Cheney and the "unitary executive"--a staggeringly important issue, but one not easy to articulate in two minutes--rang true.
And, in the end, Biden was absolutely correct: This could be the most important election since 1932. The prospect of four more years of irresponsible Republican rule is terrifying. So I'm going to say that, in substantive terms, Biden won--which is to say that, if they were playing by Lincoln-Douglas high-school forensics rules, the teachers would have given him an A-. Palin gets a C, but after some grade-grubbing and a stern note from her parents, she manages to change it to a solid B-.
Which was much better than we expected.