October 2, 2008
I admit that I was like many others in the country who tuned into the first McCain-Obama debate last Friday: I tuned out halfway through. Having all those sound-bites from their stump speeches aggregated into one enormous mega-bite was just too much to bear.
I might do the same for tonight’s vice-presidential debate too, but for a different reason: The pathos of it may be too much to bear.
A few columns back, I wrote that Sarah Palin had hit the national scene like a hurricane, overturning conventional (and convention) wisdom and throwing presidential politics into disarray: Would she exhibit exceptional insight and judgment, compensating for her paucity of experience? Could she get up to speed on the issues in time for the debate with Joe Biden — and beyond? Would her gender alone be able to attract disaffected Hillary voters, despite her opposite opinions on just about every subject? Would she make McCain look even older and voters even more frightened of the Unthinkable, now compounded with a second Unthinkable that she’d have to step into his shoes?
After a month on the campaign trail, often appearing as Maverick’s sidekick to draw out the curious and energize his rallies, sometimes appearing on her own to give the same "Thanks-but-no-thanks" speech over and over, and occasionally appearing on TV interviews to stutter and sputter, some of her virginal appeal may be waning. She’s holding her evangelical base, of course, and still drawing out the curious, but even some in her own party are recoiling in embarrassment, and in dread of what she might do next. Kathleen Parker of the conservative National Review has called on her to quit the race for the good of the ticket.
The debate with Biden might be the clincher. New York Times columnist William Kristol, editor of the neocon Weekly Standard, thinks that Palin’s problem is repression: Her true self is being inhibited by "the former Bush aides brought in to handle her." McCain, he writes, "needs to free her to use her political talents and communicate in her own voice."
Perhaps he is right. Perhaps she was so befuddled in her interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric because she was over-scripted. Perhaps, left to be the Sarah Barracuda of old, she can overcome that feeling of pity most of us experienced as we watched her squirm.
But Biden has his own problem. Speaking of handling, how will he handle her? He’s had 30 years of senatorial experience in domestic and foreign policy, starting his learning curve when she was a teenager. He also has the richly deserved reputation for the thoughtless and outlandish remark. Will he attack her without mercy? Will he snicker at her naïveté? Will he keep his distance and wait for her to sink her own ship? Will he be deferential? Can he be deferential? He may destroy his objectively overwhelming advantage with a couple shots from his own loose cannon.
Biden’s challenge here is not only to be political but to be "politic," which Webster’s defines as "shrewdly tactful." He can’t bash her as he’s been bashing McCain on the stump, however much her statements may beg for it. He can’t just ignore her as Obama has done — that’s impossible for him. He has to tack carefully because she is not just a politician, she is a symbol, and a unique one at that. Unlike the hard-bitten Hilary, the true pit bull with lipstick, Palin comes across as childlike and vulnerable, and the slightest misspoken word or look from Biden may trigger a backlash of negativity against him and of sympathy for her.
Kristol argues that Palin will acquit herself in the debate if she can "dispatch quickly any queries about herself, and confidently assert that of course she’s qualified to be vice president" — and then go on to attack Obama. It may not be that easy.
What we may see tonight is not a political contest but a psychodrama, a playing out of various meanings of power and weakness. We may find ourselves cringing and changing the channel. Or we may find ourselves transfixed.