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VP Debate Revealed: Strengths, Weaknesses & Strategies

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They started off amicably enough. “Can I call you Joe?” were Sarah Palin’s first words. Similarly, “Pleasure to be with you, to meet you,” Joe Biden began. Joe called her “Governor Palin,” while Sarah called him “Senator Biden.” They kept the tone deflected away from each other by focusing on Obama/McCain and cherry-picking points to lavish praise on one another. Biden praised Palin for her support of windfall profit taxes and her support of civil unions; Palin praised Biden for once saying he would run on the ticket with John McCain and for his support of Israel. However, it wasn’t always so friendly…

The Zingers:

For sure, Biden’s best moment was attacking the specific points of McCain’s health care plan: 

“Now, with regard to the — to the health care plan, you know, it’s with one hand you giveth, the other you take it. You know how Barack Obama — excuse me, do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax credit you’re going to get, a family will get? He taxes as income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a health care plan through your employer. That’s how he raises $3.6 trillion, on your — taxing your health care benefit to give you a $5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the insurance company. And then you’re going to have to replace a $12,000 — that’s the average cost of the plan you get through your employer — it costs $12,000. You’re going to have to pay — replace a $12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty million of you will be dropped. So you’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the “Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”

He had a particularly strong moment when he blew Palin in over her lack of specificity with regard to foreign policy:

“Gwen, with all due respect, I didn’t hear a plan,” Biden argued. “Barack Obama offered a clear plan. Shift responsibility to Iraqis over the next 16 months. Draw down our combat troops. Ironically the same plan that Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq and George Bush are now negotiating. The only odd man out here, only one left out is John McCain, number one. Number two, with regard to Barack Obama not quote funding the troops, John McCain voted the exact same way. John McCain voted against funding the troops because of an amendment he voted against had a timeline in it to draw down American troops. And John said I’m not going to fund the troops if in fact there’s a time line. Barack Obama and I agree fully and completely on one thing. You’ve got to have a time line to draw down the troops and shift responsibility to the Iraqis. We’re spending $10 billion a month while Iraqis have an $80 billion surplus. Barack says it’s time for them to spend their own money and have the 400,000 military we trained for them begin to take their own responsibility and gradually over 16 months, withdrawal. John McCain — this is a fundamental difference between us, we’ll end this war. For John McCain, there’s no end in sight to end this war, fundamental difference. We will end this war.” It’s this clear statement of policy and his mastery of the details that gives Biden the edge.

Later, Palin had an attack dog moment regarding energy, her strong suit.

“The chant is ‘drill, baby, drill,’” she corrected Biden. “And that’s what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into. They know that even in my own energy-producing state we have billions of barrels of oil and hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of clean, green natural gas. And we’re building a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline which is North America’s largest and most you expensive infrastructure project ever to flow those sources of energy into hungry markets. Barack Obama and Sen. Biden, you’ve said no to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we’re in. You even called drilling — safe, environmentally-friendly drilling offshore as raping the outer continental shelf. There — with new technology, with tiny footprints even on land, it is safe to drill and we need to do more of that. But also in that “all of the above” approach that Sen. McCain supports, the alternative fuels will be tapped into: the nuclear, the clean coal. I was surprised to hear you mention that because you had said that there isn’t anything — such a thing as clean coal. And I think you said it in a rope line, too, at one of your rallies.”

She made a personal pointed critique after Joe Biden reiterated the Bush-McCain comparison and struck back, saying:

“No, in fact, when we talk about the Bush administration, there’s a time, too, when Americans are going to say, “Enough is enough with your ticket,” on constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers, and doing the blame game. There have been huge blunders in the war. There have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with every administration. But for a ticket that wants to talk about change and looking into the future, there’s just too much finger-pointing backwards to ever make us believe that that’s where you’re going. Positive change is coming, though. Reform of government is coming. We’ll learn from the past mistakes in this administration and other administrations. And we’re going to forge ahead with putting government back on the side of the people and making sure that our country comes first, putting obsessive partisanship aside. That’s what John McCain has been known for in all these years. He has been the maverick. He has ruffled feathers. But I know, Sen. Biden, you have respected for them that, and I respect you for acknowledging that. But change is coming.”

There wasn’t really much he could say to that, even when prompted.

Then she sassed him on taxes, reciting a controversial quote from Biden. She quipped:

“Now you said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that’s not patriotic. Patriotic is saying, government, you know, you’re not always the solution. In fact, too often you’re the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper. An increased tax formula that Barack Obama is proposing in addition to nearly a trillion dollars in new spending that he’s proposing is the backwards way of trying to grow our economy.”

The Objectives:

Tonight Joe Biden needed to exercise restraint and show some of his quick wit, his intelligence and his soft gloves. The concerns were that he may insult Palin and come off as sexist or elitist – or that he may go off on tangents and lose voter’s attention. However, he stayed on message and delivered well. He demonstrated his skill in foreign policy, to which his opponent had no reply.

“The fact of the matter is, it surprises me that Sen. McCain doesn’t realize that Ahmadinejad does not control the security apparatus in Iran. The theocracy controls the security apparatus, number one. Number two, five secretaries of state did say we should talk with and sit down. Now, John and Gov. Palin now say they’re all for — they have a passion, I think the phrase was, a passion for diplomacy and that we have to bring our friends and allies along. Our friends and allies have been saying, Gwen, ‘Sit down. Talk. Talk. Talk.’ Our friends and allies have been saying that, five secretaries of state, three of them Republicans. And John McCain has said he would go along with an agreement, but he wouldn’t sit down. Now, how do you do that when you don’t have your administration sit down and talk with the adversary? And look what President Bush did. After five years, he finally sent a high-ranking diplomat to meet with the highest-ranking diplomats in Iran, in Europe, to try to work out an arrangement. Our allies are on that same page. And if we don’t go the extra mile on diplomacy, what makes you think the allies are going to sit with us? The last point I’ll make, John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago he wouldn’t even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now. I find that incredible.”

It was interesting when they were asked to define their roles. Biden said that he would be Obama’s “point person for the legislative initiatives,” which was to be expected, but he also said he’ll be in the room for every single decision being made. Obama is the type of guy who sometimes suffers from being too fair, too objective and ultimately too indecisive. So when you’re assessing in terms of “How can this guy bring balance to the ticket” – I think there you have it. Biden made it clear he’ll be the fire under Obama, offering his opinion – and there’s never a shortage of that.

In a CNN poll, 84% thought Palin did better than they expected. For Palin, her main objective tonight was to assuage many of the fears the Republicans and independent voters might have about her knowledge and her preparedness following a rather devastating week of interviews. In that regard, she succeeded. While she adhered to certain talking points, she did show that she could critique Obama’s policies, criticize Joe Biden for changing his position on a few of the issues and point out some of the things that she’s done as governor that makes her a comfortable fit for the passenger seat on this ticket. In recent weeks, a lot of pundits have argued that she’s lost her confidence and lost what makes her “Sarah Palin” because  she’s been too sheltered by the campaign. Tonight she brought out a lot of that uniqueness that we saw so clearly during the Republican National Convention. She talked about “the soccer moms,” “the Joe six-packs” and she went back to her signature conversational paraphrasing with quotes like:

“I had to take on those oil companies and tell them, ‘No,’ you know, any of the greed there that has been kind of instrumental, I guess, in their mode of operation, that wasn’t going to happen in my state. And that’s why Tillerson at Exxon and Mulva at ConocoPhillips, bless their hearts, they’re doing what they need to do, as corporate CEOs, but they’re not my biggest fans, because what I had to do up there in Alaska was to break up a monopoly up there and say, you know, the people are going to come first and we’re going to make sure that we have value given to the people of Alaska with those resources”

– and my personal favorite:

“Just everyday working class Americans saying, you know, government, just get out of my way.”

Interestingly enough, when asked about her role in the vice presidency, she responded:

“John McCain and I have had good conversations about where I would lead with his agenda. That is energy independence in America and reform of government over all, and then working with families of children with special needs. That’s near and dear to my heart also. In those arenas, John McCain has already tapped me and said, that’s where I want you, I want you to lead. I said, I can’t wait to get and there go to work with you.”

For those Independent/left-leaning voters who may have been concerned that some of Palin’s abortion, climate change or foreign policy views were a little off-base, this role is a comfort. Also interesting was her response when asked what a Palin administration would be like should anything happen to John McCain. While Biden said he’d carry out Obama’s plans on health care, the middle class, the war in Iraq, energy and  job creation, Palin pointed out that her and McCain have a few differences. As Paul Begala pointed out, in the Katie Couric debate, Palin had said her favorite VP was George HW Bush – because he became President, which gives you a clue as to her true Lady Macbeth ambitions.
The Strengths:

Karl Rove was at home watching his television, looking to see “Joe Biden, the Big Blowhard Doofus,” but instead we saw Joe Biden the Intellectual and the Restrained. This is a tremendously difficult thing for him but his answers were quick, on-point and organized. He used a lot of specifics and gave us things like “Number one… Number two…” or “Barack Obama has four main objectives” and he ran through these points very quickly, very directly.

He also kept speaking about “fundamental differences,” which is what we’re watching this debate for. He had another prize-winning moment toward the tail-end of the debate where he finally charged full-steam against the repeated notion that John McCain is this Maverick:

“Look, the maverick — let’s talk about the maverick John McCain is. And, again, I love him. He’s been a maverick on some issues, but he has been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives,” Biden stated flatly. “He voted four out of five times for George Bush’s budget, which put us a half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt since he’s got there. He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people. He has voted against — he voted including another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care plan, when he voted in the United States Senate. He’s not been a maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college. He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table. Can we send — can we get Mom’s MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can’t — we can’t make it. How are we going to heat the — heat the house this winter? He voted against even providing for what they call LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the roof in the winter. So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.”

It was also rather interesting how subtly Joe Biden pointed to Sarah Palin’s “extreme civil rights views.” As you may recall, a few weeks ago, Biden was quoted as saying, “Hopefully by the time the debate takes place, we’ll have a better sense of her other than some of what she says and what appear to be some very extreme views. I’m assuming that she shares John McCain’s views on most of the issues. And she even says, if the press is correct — and I’m not ready, prepared to make a judgment [on this] — her views on everything from global warming to other things, if they are as presented, they’re pretty far out there.” To point this out, he simply talked about how his own views have changed about the impact that a Court Justice’s opinions can have on legislation, citing Justice Bork as an example, bringing up Roe v Wade.

For Sarah Palin, what she lacked in foreign policy cred, she made up for with her strength in energy policy. After carefully navigating her way around the question as to whether or not humans have impacted climate change (which she’s been criticized for in the past), she brought some specifics to the table about her tenure as governor:

“We have got to clean up this planet. We have got to encourage other nations also to come along with us with the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that. As governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change sub-cabinet to start dealing with the impacts. We’ve got to reduce emissions. John McCain is right there with an “all of the above” approach to deal with climate change impacts. We’ve got to become energy independent for that reason. Also as we rely more and more on other countries that don’t care as much about the climate as we do, we’re allowing them to produce and to emit and even pollute more than America would ever stand for. So even in dealing with climate change, it’s all the more reason that we have an “all of the above” approach, tapping into alternative sources of energy and conserving fuel, conserving our petroleum products and our hydrocarbons so that we can clean up this planet and deal with climate change.”

The Weaknesses:

Palin’s views on granting civil rights for gay and lesbian couples were surprising and potentially upsetting to some of her more conservative-evangelical constituents. Her lack of foreign policy knowledge came up when she referred to “General McClellan,” rather than “General McKiernan,” a mistake which Joe Biden smirked at but didn’t rudely point out.

She was recklessly evasive about important questions – like what plans they would have to cut when funds were tight and about what she has changed her policy on. Her stubborn insistence that she was above answering either is disconcerting and doesn’t exactly exude fortitude.

Often times she didn’t appear to directly answer the question. The problem could be that Joe Biden’s known McCain since he first entered the senate, but Palin hasn’t been around long enough to truly know Senator McCain’s real record. When given the chance to defend some of the intricacies of McCain policies on health care, education, tax cuts for “the Exxon Mobils of the world” or voting on troop funding, Sarah dropped the ball, instead redirecting the discussion back to her safety zones of energy policy and reform. At least five times, she fell back to talking points about “changing the greed and corruption on Wall Street, bringing reform to Washington and bipartisanship,” using the exact same phrases time and time again. I think Chris Matthews summed up the problem pretty well when he charged that “Watching Palin was like watching a spelling bee: statement, use in a sentence, spelling, restatement.”

She fumbled when Ifill asked her, “Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?” Her response sounded like Bush trying to define “tribal sovereignty.” She said:

“Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.”

(On the other hand, Biden shined, quickly rebutting,

“Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history. The idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that. And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there’s a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit. The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he’s part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.”)

But as for Biden’s weaknesses, he sighed heavily at times and took a rather soft approach with Palin because he knew he had to. He didn’t respond when Palin chided “I respect your years in the senate but Americans are craving something different,” or her charge that “Barack Obama and Sen. Biden, you’ve said no to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we’re in,” or when she went so far as to accuse him of “finger pointing” and negativity. His restraint was impressive and he didn’t struggle with his emotions in the same way that Obama did in the first presidential debate, but he could have stood up for himself in a few key moments. Some of his stronger moments were when he combated her attacks.

Specifically, he didn’t really answer Ifill’s question about his shortcomings or his “Achilles heel – that he lacks discipline” very well:

“I’m not going to change. I have 35 years in public office. People can judge who I am. I haven’t changed in that time,” Biden said, slightly off-track. “And, by the way, a record of change — I will place my record and Barack’s record against John McCain’s or anyone else in terms of fundamental accomplishments. Wrote the crime bill, put 100,000 cops on the street, wrote the Violence Against Women Act, which John McCain voted against both of them, was the catalyst to change the circumstance in Bosnia, led by President Clinton, obviously.”

It’s unclear how the Crime Bill, the Violence Against Women Act or Bosnia reveals any of Joe Biden’s Achilles heels. While struggling to find his way around the murkiness of this question, he had a visibly difficult moment, where his emotions came out front and center.

“Look, I understand what it’s like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it’s like as a parent to wonder what it’s like if your kid’s going to make it. I understand what it’s like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says, ‘I’ve got to leave, champ, because there’s no jobs here. I got to head down to Wilmington. And when we get enough money, honey, we’ll bring you down.’ I understand what it’s like. I’m much better off than almost all Americans now. I get a good salary with the United States Senate. I live in a beautiful house that’s my total investment that I have. So I — I am much better off now. But 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 is going to — is going to make it — I understand.”

In a way, it could have been a bad moment for Joe, but he pulled himself together in a split second to finish what he was saying – even so, he needs to be careful about discussing his kids, or he may end up like ol’ Muskie!

Joe can’t help but be Joe, which is – compared to Palin – a Washingtonian figure. While his fans will say that’s just him being wise and disciplined, the Pat Buchanans are sitting at home saying, “Gee, this Joe Biden character sure is boring. Sarah Palin is the exciting one; she’s the change I’d like to see!”

Who won the debate? It’s pompous to say, but there were some interesting revelations tonight, and we can only hope Tuesday’s epic Obama-McCain battle can be so graceful!