Biden-Palin Debate or mini-Debacle

It began a few days ago when the McCain camp tried to get moderator, respected journalist, Gwen Ifill removed claiming she was biased. Ifill, a black woman, has a well documented record of professionalism and the respect of many, if not all, of her peers in her field. Yet McCain’s camp alleged she could not possibly moderate because she had a book coming out about the state of black America in the Obama years. While literalists may think she meant the Obama presidency, the “Obama years” can clearly also point to the rise in racist lynching metaphors and threats against black people alongside the discourse of a race-free society all triggered by Obama’s historic run. As a black woman, she could also be referring to the specific issues faced by black women who are still neither counted as women by some feminists nor as black by some race men and thus have their choice mocked on both sides and their opinions largely erased on all sides.  It is hard to know exactly what she is discussing until the book itself comes out.  What is clear is that as a professional journalist, with documented journalistic integrity, she can easily moderate a debate.

Taking it to its extreme interpretation, one that may not be unfounded, Keith Olbermann then launched into a diatribe about how the accusation was inherently racist and showed how racist the McCain camp’s entire strategy has been.  While I do not disagree that underlying some of the McCain camp’s attempts was the insinuation that no black person could be objective when a black candidate is running, a simple case of projection since many white voters have proven they are the ones lacking objectivity in those circumstances, I think McCain would have made the same claims if she had been a white person (male or female) with a similar book title. Nor has McCain been the only one to make these insinuation; they have been done on almost every pundit related network and radio station to date. The bottom line, there is a clear pattern here and that pattern is fear of moderated debate on the part of the McCain camp. First McCain tried to postpone his own debate with Obama then his camp called the moderator for the Palin debate incompetent days beforehand knowing it would be impossible to replace her.  While there are signs of other patterns Olbermann is mentioning, and I will mention one quick one at the end of this post, some times it is best to just stick to the key issue here: they say they want to talk “straight to the American people” but then they try to get out of it.


Getting out of it was the theme for the debate in my view. When asked point blank if she was actually going to answer the  questions put to her, Sarah Palin responded :

 And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people

Not only does this answer try to replace her inability or unwillingness to answer the questions with some sort of “[wo]man of the people” image but it also takes another dig at Ifill’s supposed incompetence. Worse, to the majority of the questions she was asked, Palin also gave a cursory yes or no, or nothing at all, before launching in to “but I want to talk about . . .” or “Can I talk about” or “Let’s get back to” (when some times the “back to” had never been a place they were at before). And yes, there was something of the perturbed school girl addressing the unreasonable professor black woman in her voice when she asked permission before deviating and that too, at least for all of us who have been in the “please professor black woman” role at one time or another in our lives, rubbed the wrong way, but no doubt resonated with the students who do it and the people with similar ideologies that underline it.

The hardest part about this uncooperative and willful disregard for debate rules is that it is hard for me to sit and analyze the substance of her answers.  They do not correspond to most of the questions asked, instead to talking points, and they are not always linear. There was one point, when discussing the use of nuclear weapons, where she was more like a Fey parody than someone addressing the crucial issue of nuclear proliferation. In order to do justice to the twists and turns that highlight both her skillfull refusal to address things she does not know enough about and her frightening commitment to zenophobic policy backed by might at the same time, I need a transcript because even I am having a hard time believing I heard what I heard.  So, for many watching for a “feel for the candidates,” or to see who “won,”  her talk was much stronger, much more assured, and seemed clear. However, for people like me endeavoring to document her actual knowledge, positions, and nuances, she was newly polished but sadly still a rock, an even harder one than normal.

In her favor:

  • She seldom stumbled on any issues
  • She spoke with assurance, humor, and force
  • She came across as far more prepared than she has been for anything else
  • She was also able to clearly articulate her role in the cabinet: Energy Independence, Special Needs kids, and government reform, as well as exerting power over the Senate
  • She supports a bill in Alaska to divest from the Sudan and intervention for genocide (FACT CHECK – she tried to quash this bill NOT support it)

She also got off some great one liners:

“how long have I been at this, 5 weeks”

This was said in response to the question of what campaign promises and commitments of the McCain-Palin administration she might have to back off of because of the economy. This offhand comment underscored her own lack of preparedness for the White House in two ways:

  1. Despite her claims that her business background, time as Mayor and Governor, prepared her for the second highest position in the nation, she herself is only counting 5 weeks when she thinks about her leadership in the White House
  2. No matter how she, or anyone else, counts it, she should be able to explain what programs or ideals the ticket she is on has proposed and how they are affected by the budget crisis b/c they are and they will be.  Her inability to articulate and analyze her own platform is sad enough but then to respond with a flippant answer as to why speaks to a profound inexperience that in other situations could prove incredibly problematic if not dangerous.

In describing the Democrat position of war she said it was:

the white flag of surrender in Iraq

I am sure that quote will play well with pro-war Republicans and anyone in this nation who feels that we have sacrificed to much to the war effort and cannot leave until we “win.”  The problem is that the definition of winning had been the arrest of Osama Bin Laden and the seizing of weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons and Osama is not in Iraq. In other interviews, Palin shows no awareness of either of these things. Worse as Biden pointed out, the Taliban and other terrorist groups are on the rise in the area not the decline. The decline of such groups has been the new definition of winning since the documents proving there were no WMDs went public and Congress and the Bush Administration admitted their truth value to the American people. So what is the definition of a win? Clearly, the Republicans see the Democratic definition of handing the country back to its rightful leaders (a government we helped put together and train during these last 6.5 years) and getting our troops home as safely as possible without more loss of innocent life on any side, is surrender. So for them Palin’s zinger will stick.

Enough is enough with “finger pointing backwards”


Oh Say it ain’t so Joe

She said various versions of this all night long, with the “Joe quote” being the most over the top and most likely to stick. The hope was to make Democrats seem like they were stuck in the past, fighting against Bush when Bush isn’t running, and retain the “Maverick” logo for her and McCain.  Unfortunately, for Palin, Biden consistently countered this by pointing out specific McCain votes and stated policies on the economy, education, jobs, health care, and even the war that aligned with Bush and the Bush administration.

At on of her most incoherent moments, Palin criticized “Washington insiders” and the way they speak “using concepts like I was for it  before I was against it.” Despite having used this exact double speak to cover up her “thanks but no thanks to that bridge to nowhere” debacle, she contrasted “I was for it before I was against it” behavior with her own. Claiming she alone was a Washington outsider from Alaska who just uses “straight talk with the American people.” In reality, she repeated the “thanks but no thanks” line from her acceptance speech well into the first 2 weeks of her campaign even as evidence mounted that she had ask for the pork belly spending, used lobbyists to get it, and then kept the money after the deal tanked, only changing her public opinion about the bridge itself when it became unpopular in Congress.

Her scariest moment was when she said she agreed with Dick Cheney that the VP is somehow beyond the checks and balances set up by the nations founding fathers and the Constitution of the United States of America that has governed us since Independence. Worse when she said that she wanted to exert as much power over the Senate as she was allowed by McCain, it was not just terrifying but showed the side of her that has been trickling out from Alaska since the announcement of her campaign: the woman who fired people who disagreed with her, ended long time careers of civil servants who did not do what she wanted, and threatened others over things that were not in her power to change or control. The same thing showed through in her answer to what policy she has changed her mind about during her time in office. Her answer: voting for economic policies she was against but voted for anyway that she promptly blamed on bullying tactics of people that she could not remove and implied that she would and should remove them. And were again evident in her answer to her “Achilles heel” which she never answered but did say that she was “unapologetic” about her record, her actions, and her unquestioned pro-war patriotism. We have already seen what having “leaders” who are only interested in their own power and a “Texas style justice,” to quote Bush, in the rest of the world means to the nation and ultimately the globe, we don’t need 4 more years of that ever again.

Palin’s failure to answer the question about nuclear proliferation and the potential use of nukes by the US is also similar to Bush whose brazen use of war without clear planning or intel is the kind of zealotry that may ultimately lead to situations where other countries threaten such violence (as some already have), leaving us to scramble for solutions before the “big stick” destroys the world. Both Palin and Bush seem to have forgotten the other half of that famous quote, “walk softly.”


Biden’s 35 years of experience and considerable knowledge on foreign affairs showed well in the debate. While I was among those to criticize what kind of change a 35 year veteran of Congress can bring us, I have to say that his nuanced understanding of foreign affairs and his ability to talk about multiple committees, measures, constitutionalism, and general government workings made me feel safer. And when I say safer, I don’t mean safer about him as a pick but rather safer in this country. I felt like with him advising and working with Obama that we could have a better, stronger, respected America again and that maybe in the long run we could rebuild all of these bridges Bush and Cheney have burned down in their 8 year blaze of glory. All though it should not be a selling point, it was nice to finally have a person running who can clearly articulate the checks and balances of our government system as set up by the constitution, quote and support the rights afforded the N. American people by that constitution, and commit to upholding them. Despite all their talk of patriotism, the Republicans have run rough shod over our constitution on many occassions, McCain and Bush both, and yet that is the cornerstone of what sets this country apart.

Biden’s pluses:

  • mentioned some of the key bills he had sponsored: Violence Against Women Act, Troop Funding Bill (shot down by McCain), intervention in Bosnia, etc.
  • believes in intervention, but only when: 1. we can impact for the good and 2. when genocidal behavior denies states the right to claim sovereignty from US intervention
  • he wants to stop genocide in Darfur and has a plan: 1. enforce a no fly zone over Darfur and 2. work with and act as leaders in NATO to prevent further attacks
  • showed an indepth understanding of the Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan conflicts or potential conflicts as well as a clear understanding of the region – he is also pro-Israel which depending on your politics can be a good or very bad thing
  • supports the use of sanctions and diplomacy and military effort with world allies not against them
  • supports Obama’s platform: plans for college tuition relief, tax breaks to 95% of the American people, health care for everyone, end war responsibly, get Osama, end Al Queda’s stronghold, act will allies, reject the Bush Doctrine, work on a foreign policy of prevention and cooperation

(Biden did not mention in his discussion of genocide that he also supports the internetional VAWA which would protect women from rape as a weapon of war, make room for asylum cases based on sexual and physical threat, and generally make it much harder for men and boys who would escalate existing gender inequalities in war time to get away with it. This is the kind of legislation many involved in global women’s activism have been fighting for and Biden is committed to pushing it.)

In general Biden performed like an over competent, in a good way, VP taking the focus off of himself and putting it squarely on Obama and the Obama campaign. Palin also mentioned John McCain many times, I think in a similar attempt, but she was very clearly also putting forward herself and her competence.  You can see that as overzealous insecurity and power mongering or you can see it as her attempt to put to rest all of her critics. I think it was a little of both as evidenced by how strongly she pushed McCain at the beginning and how little she did in the middle and throughout most of the end. Biden’s critics are concerned about his years = no change, he did not even bother to answer that and you can take that as the privilege of a white male who knows his competence is assumed or a man who knows the good work that he has done and stands by it. Again, I think it was a little of both. No one is going to argue Biden is not arrogant or has gender and race privilege, but I doubt anyone can argue that he does not have an extensive and largely positive record.

The points for the Democratic ticket in general:

  • McCain out of touch on the economy – in 1 week he praised the fundamentals of the economy, then changed the definition of fundamental, then claimed there was a crisis with everyone else
  • McCain, and Palin during the debate, to credit for the bail out – McCain was largely seen by both sides of the aisle as being a hindrance to the discussions
  • 2 years ago Obama warned against the subprime lending issue while McCain spent the last 1 1/2 years supporting deregulation.
  • according to Biden, McCain voted 20 times in 1.5 years for de-regulation and granted an interview praising its value
  • According to Biden, MCCain wanted to use the same formula on health care
  • Using Palin math, Obama voted for tax increases 94 times and McCain voted for it 447 (Biden’s point, the math is wrong but McCain has voted for increased taxes of the middle class not tax relief)
  • Obama’s health care plan support everyone, McCain’s plan taxes existing benefits and provides less than 1/2 of what is needed to cover the average family
  • Obama 95% of people get a tax break, including small business owners under a certain income, under McCain’s plan $300 billion in tax breaks for corporations and MNCs but not for middle class families
  • McCain wants to give $4 billion in tax breaks to the same oil companies he claims to want to regulate
  • Obama will eliminate wasteful budget items including corporate tax loopholes that lower their tax liability to the least in the world in actual pay out per year
  • Obama will increase education funding and alternative energy funding; McCain voted against alternative energy 20 times, against CHIP – children’s health care initiative program, education (voted against grant funding, loan relief, and has said he wants to dismantle the dept of ed)
  • Oil from “drill baby drill” won’t be available for 10 years; Palin says there is billions of untapped oil in Alaska that can be reached easily and that the new national gas pipeline in Alaska, which has already destroyed animal habitats and traditional hunting and fishing, will provide enormous amounts of energy
  • According to Palin, McCain supports a surge in Afghanistan but the general in charge of Afghanistan said a surge would not work (Palin claimed he did not but she did not even get his name right)
  • More $ has been spent in 3 weeks on Iraq than in 6.5 years in Afghanistan and yet fundamentalist bases are building up there unchecked; McCain claimed that they had won in Afghanistan and that Iraq “would be easy”
  • Obama supports nuclear arms control; McCain voted against independent inspections, against test bans, and against a bipartisan control plan co-sponsored by Obama; Palin could not commit to not using nukes or to what circumstances nukes might be a possibility
  •  Obama support diplomacy as do 5 Secretaries of State – claimed he had been taken out of context when people implied he meant he was the only one who could meet with them, and also pointed out Bush is currently engaged in diplomatic talks with various ME stakeholders; McCain supports lower level diplomacy, all tho he did not earlier, and he also collapsed all Latinos and Spaniards into a single group when concluding a discussion about Chavez in which he said he would not sit down with Spain, Chavez isn’t in Spain.
  • McCain voted against VAWA
  • McCain voted against energy assistance to the poorest families in the US

Negatives for Both

  • neither supports gay marriage and Palin’s insistence on “tolerance” and her desire to trot out her gay friend again were particularly grating

War and personality:

Biden was the most moving to me when he became choked up by Palin’s callous disregard for his own life experiences. When she put herself forward as a working class mother who has a unique understanding of the needs of families and “average working class families” he spoke powerfully about losing his wife, being a single parent, and having to leave his family to find work.  His tearfully inability to even discuss his boys’ injuries and not knowing if they would survive their car accident or be permanently disabled stood in stark contrast to the way Palin always finds a way to work in her differently-abled son and his special needs. To me the difference is between that actual embrace of difference in your children that includes real fear and strength in parenting and what Eli Claire calls the “super crip” syndrome. Many in the differently-abled community with whom I interact, as a differently-abled person, as well as providers have said the same thing to me without my prompting. (I actually don’t discuss it because I cannot find the language that expresses what I sense in her statements and I am afraid of being inarticulate on such an important issue, so when it comes up it is always at someone else’s request or stated discomfort with her on this issue.)

The other time he teared up was when he discussed how he had worked on a bill to fund troops and provide them with important shielding and weapons that they had been sent into battle without or with subpar equipment (b/c of contracts with a company tied to Cheney) and then McCain voted against it because of a timeline dispute. He seemed genuinely concerned for

the welfare of the troops and deeply ashamed of the politicking McCain had allowed to compromise that support. (And yes, he did try to mask his same anger and hurt at Obama for voting against funding because of a lack of timeline during the debate; which would be a point in Palin’s favor.) I saw fear for his son in his eyes that I have never seen in Palin’s for hers, and I wondered as she nonchalantly thanked him for his son’s service if she simply keeps those fears to herself late at night or if she really is so committed to a war that so few N. Americans still support that she would blindly and proudly sacrifice her eldest son without a moments thought? I can’t believe any mother could know what we know about shoddy equipment, what my grandmother calls piss poor planning, the constant desertion and switching sides of Iraqi forces, the cavalier attitude of Blackwater toward our own military, etc. and not shudder even for a moment. I watched for her face when Biden later “selfishly” asked God to bless our troops, they didn’t show it in time for her immediate reaction but when they did pan to her, she was shuffling papers. I don’t know what to think about that b/c every great leader who has ever gone to war or sent children, their own or others, has shown signs of worry, remorse for loss of life even in just wars (WWII for instance), and a sense of reflection about the meaning of war and death.  McCain fought in a previous unwanted war, one of his children has fought, Biden and Palin both have children who will go to Iraq. Bush is the first sitting president not to show signs of reflection and remorse, except late in his career and rarely then, in my lifetime. I want him to be the last one.

Ultimately, who won and who lost is up to all of us. For me, I can see how people inclined to like Palin will think she took this one tonight.  She had better one liners.  She delivered even the most incoherent babble with confidence like she was actually saying something. She managed to “run the board” refusing to answer questions put to her in a way that did not look like obstinance and did not lead to sanction. On the other hand, my notes are pretty clear that facts and figures and experience wise Biden was clearly more intelligent, more experienced, more nuanced, more ready to lay out clear and actually successful plans, and just as equally able to be a “man of the people” as she, except when he did it seemed genuine. And, while some people will take that “aww chucks” behavior to heart, I don’t take kindly to charicature and I don’t think Palin is talented enough to make it into the parody that I hope she is going for when she does that. The problem is the media is so caught up in their own regionalism that they neither pick up on charicature or parody when she does that and they just make the people for whom her behaviors resonate all the more reticent about what kind of change is needed. (Have you ever thought that the “change” McCain and Palin are promising is an end to the literati and so-called liberal, urban, decadence, and not an end to the Bush policies at all? For some people, especially up against the choice of a black president, that is a powerful thing.)

At the end of it all, Palin said she wished they had more chances for these debates and discussions and Biden agreed. So do I. Seeing them together made me much more convinced of the importance of an Obama win and the relevance of Joe Biden. Of course, if they had more events with black moderators, that would give Palin’s youngest daughter a chance to stare a little too off put by difference at them and show the most cursory acknowledgment of their right to exist again that I do not want. (watch the tape when Ifill tries to talk to and then shake her hand; pay close attention not only to her expression during the miniscule exchange but also immediately after it is finished.)


  • Sack 2008
  • Palin Official image unattributed
  • Biden Official Portrait unattributed
  • AP/unattributed
  • AP/unattributed


2 thoughts on “Biden-Palin Debate or mini-Debacle

  1. I’m crap at watching debates because (and this is going to sound horribly asinine) I find them really discomfiting. I watched some of last night’s, but I’d much rather read transcripts. So your analysis here is really invaluable to me. And that time stamp is making me feel tired just looking at it.I thought Biden was at his best when he sounded emotionally invested. Of course it was vital that he knew what he was talking about, and it was fantastic to see him showing his mastery of these topics, but there’s something reassuring about a politician who actually sounds like he gives a shit. That’s pretty naive of me, I know, but there you have it. I was also pleased that he didn’t cram his foot so far down his throat that he nearly turned inside out.

  2. welcome to the blog Nicole. thanks. when the transcripts come in and I have a chance to get them, I will not only check my quotes for accuracy but also put the transcripts in pdf on the blog so you can get them here.I agree, his emotion definitely swayed me as well and I too was worried he would say something . . . well like some of the things I have mentioned him saying before. Glad he didn’t!

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