Despite Low Expectations, Palin A Skilled Debater

The Palin candidacy has been taking on water for quite some time now as a result of a series of ill-fated soundbites and television interviews.  On the upside for the McCain/Palin campaign this means at the very least that expectations couldnt’ get any lower, could they?

True, but at the same time, a number of stories are being released that show a very different image of the Alaskan governor, one in which she manages to leave her debate opponents in the dust.

While policy wonks such as Biden might cringe, it seemed to me that Palin was simply vocalizing her strength without realizing it. During the campaign, Palin’s knowledge on public policy issues never matured – because it didn’t have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy.

Palin is a master of the nonanswer. She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she’s met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.

In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn’t like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn’t name a bill.

And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has a canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I discussed the health of local communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable healthcare, and Palin talked about … the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.

Writes one of her past debate opponents.  Indeed, from the few clips I’ve seen and the things I’ve read, coupled with her speech at the Republican convention, it seems that Palin’s strength is not the interview, but the debate or the high profile speech, that venue where the goal is not to give the right answer, but instead to get the audience on your side.

Which is exactly the same image that the New York Times comes up with:

Ms. Palin, a former mayor who had become a whistle-blower about ethical misconduct in state government, held her own in those debates. (There were almost two dozen in the general election alone; she skipped some, and not all were recorded.)

She staked out a populist stance against oil companies and projected a fresh, down-to-earth face at a time when voters wanted change. That helped her soundly defeat Frank H. Murkowski, the unpopular Republican governor, in the primary and former Gov. Tony Knowles in the general election.

Her debating style was rarely confrontational, and she appeared confident. In contrast to today, when she seems unversed on several important issues, she demonstrated fluency on certain subjects, particularly oil and gas development.

Indeed, Palin is almost the very essence of the modern Republican political star; one that aggressively refutes fact and substance as an asset, preferring instead to drive straight for the one on one connection with the voters on a personal level.  As I’ve said frequently before, being factually correct isn’t important in the realm of politics nearly as much as being perceived as being on the side of right by the voters.

Which is what Palin does best.  She may not be able to handle the intricacies of specific policies, but she has that uncanny ability to connect with her audience.

The candidates she squared off against, and the reporters who posed questions in several debates, recall that she related high gas prices to the difficulties her family had buying a car. She explained that she was in tune with environmentalists because she named a daughter, Bristol, for Alaska’s Bristol Bay. She demonstrated her affinity for Native American culture by citing the teachings of her husband’s Yu’pik Eskimo grandparent.

The other candidates scowled and sighed over her inability, in one exchange, to identify a single bill passed by the legislature that she either approved or disapproved of. She ignored their frustration.

Then, in one of the evening’s final questions, she deftly turned the tables on the two men.

Asked what jobs she might have in her administration for either opposing candidate, she chuckled that former Gov. Knowles could be her official chef, while Mr. Halcro would be Alaska’s top statistician.

“It was a witty answer, and funny,” recalls Larry Persily, the Anchorage Daily News editor who posed the question at a debate broadcast on the state’s public television network. “But it was also a put-down. Everyone knows Tony used to own a restaurant called Downtown Deli, and she was suggesting he should go back to running a lunch counter. With Andrew, she was saying, basically, ‘Gee, all your facts and numbers are nice, but the voters just don’t care.'”

So I don’t know.  I think it’s possible that we may take a hit tomorrow night, maybe even a big one.

But there is another way of thinking about it; this debate is Palin’s chance to prove that she is qualified to be where she is right now, something that is under extreme doubt right now.  I personally think she’ll perform well, and I’m actually operating under the assumption that she’ll ultimately be credited with a win come Friday morning.

Despite this, however; we have to take a look at what this minor victory will mean in its full context.  It would mean that only by a fraction, John McCain’s judgement on one single point, selecting a running mate, was not perhaps as flawed as previously believed.  Considering all the other problems plaguing the McCain campaign at this point, I really don’t think that’s going to be enough to help overall.

4 Responses to “Despite Low Expectations, Palin A Skilled Debater”

  1. gcotharn says:

    I contend we have reached a point where the right and left often dispute the basic facts which underlie a situation or an issue. Right and left do not merely dispute opinions about an issue, but also the foundational facts about the issue which ought – by all sanity and fairness and principles of civilization: be indisputable. This depresses me. We cannot be a civilization if we cannot agree that a tree is a tree.

    The tree thing is an exaggeration, but only a bit.

    Of everything you wrote in this post, I oddly keyed in on part of one sentence:

    Palin is almost the very essence of the modern Republican political star; one that aggressively refutes fact and substance as an asset

    Politics is a cynical game. However, Republican stars do not believe they are aggressively refuting fact. That you and Repub stars cannot agree about what constitutes fact is depressing. That I and Barney Frank and John Conyers and Henry Waxman cannot agree about what constitutes fact is depressing. That you and I ever disagree about underlying fact is depressing.

  2. Ace Armstrong says:

    Since Alaska has a population well under a million scattered over a vast landscape, I think the debate will give us some indication of the political reality there.
    As a resident of Montana I’ve noticed over the years that dissatisfied immigrant to our fair state who eventually leave will either return to where they came from or go to Alaska. And those that go to Alaska are the rugged individualist types who find Montana too compromising. So it comes as no surprise that a woman like Sarah Palen is successful in Alaska. When I hear her voice and watch the hand motions I think of her as an Alaskan version of the hip valley girl made good.
    The question of the debate will be if her act can pass muster on the national stage. If the look in Katie Couric’s eyes during the interview are any indication, the Queen of the North has her work cut out for her.

  3. radical_Moderate says:

    If the “Let Sarah be Sarah” movement has its way, then I expect to hear the sort of off topic, folksy answer as you quoted Kyle…I suppose the more often she can bring up her “charmingly,” if off beat, named large brood, son on his way to Iraq, and rough neck husband as paragons of “Joe Sixpackism” the better showing she will make among some voters (low information, and those already pre-disposed to love “Our Sarah.”) As for the rest of the electorate, I have great hope that they will see past the corn-pone to the cluelessness of Governor Palin, remember that the last 8 years of governance by a guy that Americans voted in because of his “rustic,” and say “ENOUGH!”

  4. corn-pone?

    Well, I think you’re right except for one thing. I think if Palin brings up her son going to Iraq, if she plays that card, she plays it very unwisely as Biden’s son just left for Iraq today as well. In other words, he may not have a trump card, but he does have a card to neutralize it.

    That, and Biden’s not exactly seen as a radical liberal elitist either. I think he’s got enough lunch bucket in him to appear, if not as folksy as Palin, at least folksy enough.

    I mean, I really don’t know at this point. I don’t think we’re going to see Palin respond the way she did to Katie Couric during those god awful interviews. I think she is going to be charming, but you’re dead right; will people be able to see beyond that, and a lot of that is going to be based on Joe.

    Does Joe have the ability to let Palin hang herself with her own rope? Given Biden’s tendancy towards a prolific speaking style, he may not.

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