No Comment — October 5, 2008, 11:55 am

The Ifill Factor

The recent debate at Washington University in Saint Louis between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin was the most watched vice presidential debate of all time. Polling and pundits seem to have settled on a consensus view, namely that the debate was a clear win for Senator Biden on points and persuasion. But Governor Palin gets an important consolation prize in that she outperformed the historically low expectations for her, expectations set by a series of gaffes and misfires in handling questions, particularly in interviews conducted by CBS News’s Katie Couric. None of that is particularly surprising. What really merits scrutiny in my mind are the tactics employed by the McCain campaign going into this debate. As Ken Silverstein noted in the days just before the debate, McCain operatives claimed to have made a “shocking discovery.” Ifill was about to publish a book entitled The Breakthrough that discusses Barack Obama, and a number of other black politicians, achieving national prominence in the last few years. (One of them, Alabama’s Artur Davis, has been profiled in this space recently.) The McCain campaigners claimed that this demonstrated bias, and suggested that Ifill should be dropped. In two appearances on Fox News, Senator McCain himself first dismissed these attacks on Ifill, and then, within the same newscycle, repeated them himself.

What was this all about? I’ve been interviewed by Ifill. She takes a scrupulous straight-down-the-middle approach and that’s her reputation. The McCain campaign knew about Ifill and her book from the end of the summer, and they certainly knew about it when they agreed on the recommendation of Ifill for the debate. Looking at how the debate proceeded, I think it is clear why they raised objections. They did not expect or even want Ifill to drop out. But they were counting on two things. First, the charges against Ifill would lead to her being extremely passive in her questioning of Palin and permissive in her moderating the debate. Second, the charge of bias against Ifill would enable Palin to simply skirt any questions she felt uncomfortable answering and go directly to a pre-rehearsed and nonresponsive talking point.

This strategy succeeded on both points. Ifill’s questioning and moderating was, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows remarked, “terrible.” She asked open-ended, utterly predictable questions which presented very little challenge to the candidates. But even more important to the McCain campaign’s strategy, Palin was able simply to ignore the questions and recite her talking points.

I think “recite” is the correct term. At several points while Biden was speaking, Palin’s eyes were fixed on some written material on the podium before her. Following these episodes, Palin’s comments were frequently off point—she seems to have been simply reciting prepared material, and hadn’t paid close enough attention to Ifill or Biden even to attempt to bridge them. Moreover, nearly half of all of Palin’s comments were nonresponsive or only tangentially responsive to the questions. Even at that, her talking material was so thin that she wound up repeating herself several times and using large helpings of verbal filler. As John Harris and Mike Allen put it in their analysis in The Politico:

On at least 10 occasions, Palin gave answers that were nonspecific, completely generic, pivoted away from the question at hand, or simply ignored it: on global warming, an Iraq exit strategy, Iran and Pakistan, Iranian diplomacy, Israel-Palestine (and a follow-up), the nuclear trigger, interventionism, Cheney’s vice presidency, and her own greatest weakness.

In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press a few minutes ago, Ifill made the obvious point in response to a question from Tom Brokaw: “Palin didn’t just ignore me. ‘Blew me off,’ I think, is the technical term.”

The disingenuous attacks on Ifill over her book were designed to enable Palin. She would ignore the questions put by the moderator and her supporters would understand that she was doing this as a gesture of protest over the moderator’s bias. This strategy reflects a very low assessment of Palin’s capabilities as a thinker and a speaker, and a low assessment of the intelligence of the audience following the debates. But it may have been cast in recognition of the perilous possibilities that the Couric interviews demonstrated. To that extent, at least, the strategy achieved its goal.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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