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.