What Palin Needs To Do
Tomorrow is the most important day of Sarah Palin’s life—she must debate Joe Biden in the single vice presidential debate. If she wins, she will reignite “Palinmania”, at least to some extent, and will almost certainly give McCain a significant boost in the polls. She will also be in good position to be considered the Republican party’s heir apparent. If she loses, she is finished as a national candidate—McCain will probably lose the election, and Sarah Palin will remain governor of an unimportant state, and will be remembered only as a miserable failure of a vice presidential candidate. Palin needs to win.
A Palin win isn’t a foregone conclusion. Palin doesn’t have much debate experience, at least on a national scale, and her media interviews up to this point have been rather poor, to be very charitable. (Disastrous is actually the first word that jumped to mind). Her grasp of the minutiae of presidential level issues seems a bit…limited, and she often answers tough questions by lapsing into generic nonsense, which doesn’t help her much. Palin faces a difficult task.
In order to win, Palin will have to absolutely destroy Biden. She can’t pull any punches, and she can’t let up. She will have to be on her A-game—and will have to keep Biden from being on his. No mercy—Biden (and Obama by extension) must be totally crushed.
An example of what Palin needs to do: while running for governor, Palin debated former governor Tony Knowles and independent candidate Andrew Halcro. (Is there a TV event less watched than Alaskan gubernatorial debates?) When the candidates were asked if they would hire their opponents for a state job, Palin’s opponents gave the question joking nonanswers. Palin didn’t. She responded that the stats-quoting Halcro would “make the most awesome statistician the state could ever look for." She then suggested that Knowles (who had previously owned a restaurant) for the position of state chef, saying that he “would be really good at that.” That’s the Sarah Palin who has to show up tomorrow.
Palin can’t afford a draw. This is her only debate, and the public perception of Palin seems to be that she is a pleasant but incompetent bimbo. (That perception, by the way, is not without some basis in fact). If the debate is a draw, this impression will remain. Palin has to win; a draw would be nearly as damaging as an outright defeat.
And to win, Palin must relentlessly pound Biden. Candidates rarely get too tough with each other during debates (the most aggressive response I can remember was when Mitt Romney told Mike Huckabee that he “made stuff up faster than you talk,” which isn’t exactly a crushing riposte), since they are afraid that they will be seen as bullies. Palin doesn’t have to worry about that—her looks and sex effectively insulate her from the bully image.
Palin might not look like a bully—but she does face the danger of coming across, well, like Hillary Clinton: shrill, hectoring, and overbearing. And there’s really nothing Palin can do to prevent this—she must simply hope that she can project a favorable, pleasant image, which is the one thing she has had no trouble doing. So Palin has few worries on that front.
A final challenge for Palin: moderator Gwen Ifill is obviously in the tank for Obama, as she is writing a book about his candidacy scheduled to be released on Inauguration Day. For this book to sell, Obama must win—no one reads books about losing candidates—and Ifill will almost certainly try to give him a little help. Palin has had difficulty with unfriendly interviewers—she will have to overcome Ifill’s bias.
Can Palin achieve these goals? No one knows, of course, but I’d put the odds at about fifty-fifty. Palin, for whatever reason, hasn’t really been that impressive outside her convention speech, and hasn’t impressed many as someone particularly likely to win a presidential debate.
Her grasp of the issues often seems a bit uncertain; and her phrasings are often confused and nonsensical. This may be—probably is—due to inexperience with high-pressure interviews—but Palin needs to catch up fast.
The debate will be decided by how fast Palin can catch up. She’s debating Joe Biden, who isn’t exactly a master of repartee. Palin wins overwhelmingly on style—but the debate will be decided on substance, and Palin is still in the process of being educated. But her education must be complete by Thursday night—when the debate starts, she’s got to be ready.