Oct 1, 2008

“But Palin's an Excellent Debater”—WTF? Advice to Biden

The McCain–Palin team has seeded the media with stories of Sarah Palin’s prowess as a debater. Article after article details how she is a force to be reckoned with in the context of an oral, mano a mano contest. References go back to her skills in Alaskan debates where she stood up against more knowledgeable and worthy opponents and, well, did the David slaying Goliath thing.

Even those unconvinced of Palin’s qualifications to be standing where she is have to concede that she has charm and the actor's touch of looking deeply and with verve into the eye of the camera and coming across as both likable and believable.

But let this whole line of argument come to a screeching halt right here. Debating about subjects about which one is familiar and debating about subjects that are over one's head are two different sports. Not only does Palin have little—if any—intellectual curiosity, she doesn't seem to do well in boning up for oral exams on a national or international level either. And she doesn't ad lib well, as Reagan did, cutting frequently to anecdotes as a way to bring the focus back to a human level. Lastly, Palin's major weakness, even beyond her inability to pull information she utterly lacks out of her butt, is that she seems unable to think in specifics on-demand. On the national stage, she has sputtered and run out of steam when asked for examples—every time.

The keys for Senator Joe Biden to win Thursday night's debate are:

  • Ask Palin for specific examples
  • Give plenty of specific examples (so that Palin will look puny by contrast) without coming across as a know-it-all
  • Be charming and funny (but don't go overboard)
  • Do not patronize (as George Bush Sr. did to Geraldine Ferraro), regardless of how tempting that may be

Even though Biden’s 35 years of experience in the Senate (including stints on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees) compared to Palin’s one and half years as a governor of a state with a population less than some U.S. cities, there is always a risk of turning off voters by displaying an overbearing attitude, by twisting the knife too many times. Americans love an underdog, so this contest has to be done gracefully. The trick is to give Palin plenty of space to hang herself by her own vapidness.

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