I just watched the Biden-Palin debate. I thought I would try to put down my initial reactions before I listened to or read any punditry on it.
I'm visiting in Austria, so I watched it on a Tivo-ed recording from the German channel ZDF which carried it with a simultaneous German translation.
This was the best performance by Joe Biden I recall seeing. He did the essential thing. I agree with Paul Krugman in thinking and hoping that if the Obama campaign can keep it clear that the Presidential race is between a Democrat and a Republican, the Dems are likely to win. And Biden did an excellent job of keeping that point always in focus.
For our Establishment media, of course, all this boring content stuff is strictly secondary. What matters to them are gaffes, zingers and that all-important body language. I didn't see any that appear of any consequence to me. Palin certainly appears to be an intellectual lightweight. And she has some beauty-pageant mannerisms like winking and tossing in perky-sounding phrases that I personally find annoying. Others no doubt find them enduring. And both politically and substantively they are of no consequence. Biden had a gracious manner, as he normally does, but he showed Palin the respect to go after her claims and positions aggressively.
The best part to me was that Biden made it very clear that he and Obama support a 16-month timeline for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, while McCain and Palin have no plan that we know of other than continuing the Iraq War indefinitely and prattle about the magic of The Surge. In general, Biden clearly sounded more informed and more credible than Palin on foreign affairs. And he was diligent about not leeting Palin's happy-talk version of McCain's foreign policy positions stand unchallenged.
The scariest part by far was that Palin made it very clear that she supports the Cheney position on the Vice President's role as a special office between the Executive and the Legislative brances, a theory that Biden rightly labelled as a "bizarre notion". Palin's comments on this made it sound to me like she foresees an even larger role for the Vice President.
It certainly appears to me that Palin is an intellectual lightweight in terms of normal expectations about grappling with political ideas. But we shouldn't underestimate the influence she could have as Vice President or the damage she could do even in that office, let alone as President herself. The current administration provides the obvious examples. Bush was and is considered a man of limited intellectual curiousity or analytical ability, though there are some of his critics who doubt that view, the present writer not being one of them. Almost everyone regarded Cheney as a colorless fellow who was likely to play a limited role or would, if anything, be a moderating influence on Bush. Actually, he has been both an enormous influence in the administration and a force for rightwing radicalism. And sadly effective at both within the administration.
Palin could bring neocon and Christianist players into the Cheneyized Office of the Vice President and wind up wielding enormous influence. And between her moralistic, Manichean notions of good and evil in foreign policy and those winks which McCain probably finds charming, she could have a great deal of personal influence with the old guy.
In general, Palin's strategy was to try to blur the differences between McCain and Bush while presenting McCain as the Maverick who would oppose Wall Street greed and Big Oil. And to pass off standrad Republican positions like "drill, drill, drill" as some kind of thoughtful approach to energy and environmental issues. If Biden had been as passive and unassertive as Joe Lieberman was in that long-ago 2000 debate with Dick Cheney, some of those point might have gone down better. As it happened, Palin's use of timeworn Republican clichees over and over probably served to highlight her own continuity with the Cheney-Bush nightmare years.
Biden's strategy was basically the mirror image, to remind everyone that McCain=Bush. And he made the point directly, over and over, and did a good job of shooting down Palin's claims for McCain's and her own "mavrickicity". I thought it was expecially effective when he agreed with one policy of Palin's that arguably was "maverick", which was that she applied an excess-profits tax to oil company profits in Alaska in order to finance a tax rebate to the general public, the pointed out that McCain opposes any such policy.
Biden did a good job of reminding people that McCain has been a huge supporter of deregulation and that he and Obama favored specific measures to help debt-squeeyed homeowners keep their homes in the current crisis. He also made it very clear that Demcorats support a policy to provide health insurance to everyone and the Republicans don't.
And, Lord-a-mercy, Biden even used the phrase "free market" as an accusation against McCain! The time they are 'a changin', so it seems.
My biggest disappointment in the debate was that I didn't hear a single mention of the torture policy.
Biden was good up to a point on defending Constitutional rights and gays and lesbians. But both he and Palin oppose gay marriage. And the two of them, Gwen Ifill, and the live audience present go a good chuckle out the fact that they agree on that point. I found that moment to be an embarassment for all involved, though they obviously thought the notion of gay marriage was worth no more than a good chuckle.
A couple of points gave me raised-eyebrow moments. One was when Palin made it sound like she opposed Iran having even nuclear energy. Though the connection to the nuclear weapons program is major, the practical discussions for a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue all involve so far as I'm aware some way to provide for Iran to have nuclear power plants under adequate international controls, a right which they have under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Another was Biden's particular wording on Afghanistan. I'm opposed to escalation in Afghanistan, so maybe this was wishful hearing. But it seemed to me that while Biden used the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation to attack McCain's focus on the Iraq War, he was cautious about suggesting any major escalation there. I didn't catch any refernce to the need to escalate the military conflict there. Instead, he talked about providing non-military aid to Pakistan to counter the influence of violent Islamists. I'm hoping for that to be a new sign that a future Obama administration is already giving itself wiggle-room on the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict.
I also found Biden's notion of a NATO no-fly zone for Darfur a discouraging note. The notion that involving ourselves in a civil war via NATO, airplanes and bombs will somehow be a clean way of intervening is a largely false and generally dangerous one.
And on that issue, Palin referred to Alaska's policy of disinvestment in the Sudan, seemingly agreeing with Biden on the Darfur issue. This was one example in this debate, as were her comments on Iran and Israel, that reminded me that the Republican Party is so thoroughly merged with Christianist factions that we almost need to have an expert in conservative American Protestant sociology to interpret what statements really mean. The Sudan has been an issue for Christitianists because it involves Muslims persecuting Christians. It's a legitimate concern in itself. But legitimate concerns can be instrumentalized for illegitimate purposes. What most viewers probably heard as a possibly moderate-liberal foreign policy position in Palin's statement on the Sudan, Christianists heard as a shout-out to rightwing Islamophobia.
One translating Palin's Christianist phraseology, I highly recommend Sarah Posner's FundamentaList columns of 09/24/08 and 10/01/08 at The American Prospect Online. Her 09/24/08 column touches on the particular cult-like definition of "tolerance" which the Christianists use expecially in relation to gay rights, a world which Palin used repeatedly in her anti-gay-marriage comments in the debate.