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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Governor Palin's Debate Performance: No Substance

The immediate reaction to the performance of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in her debate on Thursday night had to be one of relief for many Republicans. After a week in which she raised the fears of even loyalists with her poor answers to very basic questions from Katie Couric, her performance in the debate reassured the base that she was who they thought she was--a maverick able to make folksy references, through an effective attack, and seem charming.

The pundits seemed to agree. The best they could say is that she allayed feared, stopped the bleeding, but they also said that her performance was not, in 2008 parlance, a "game changer."

All week long we heard pundits suggest that the bar was set so low by the Governor that if she simply didn't fall over herself on the stage, she would look good by comparison. Indeed that they were correct.

I am going to argue here, however, that aside from her demonstrated ability to talk on Thursday night, her answers and the substance were not altogether different from what she had displayed earlier in the week.

How confident are the Republicans in her ability after this debate performance, the performance that they tried to spin as great?

The answer is very simple: she is not scheduled to be on any of the Sunday morning talk shows this weekend nor are there plans for her to be on any for the rest of the campaign. That is a very telling fact.

The second very interesting fact came out of the FOX News interview that she did on Friday morning--the only interview that the McCain campaign allowed her to do. On Thursday it had been announced that McCain had decided to pull his operation and stop advertising in Michigan. This was announced around midday on Thursday. Palin was asked about this on Friday morning.

Palin's response was that she had, "Read that this morning and I fired off a quick e-mail."

She continued:
"Oh, come on. Do we have to call it there? Todd and I would happy to get to Michigan and walk through those plants where car manufacturers.

We'd be so happy to get to speak with the people there in Michigan, who are hurting because the economy is hurting. Whatever we can do and whatever Todd and I can do in realizing what their challenges in that state are, as we can relate to them and connect with them and promise them that we won't let them down in the administration. I want to get back to Michigan and I want to try."
The illuminating point, of course, is that she, " that this morning." She was not involved in the strategy or decision making, nor was she briefed. Telling? Perhaps.

Bottom line here for me is that if Palin's performance had inspired the confidence of the McCain campaign, neither of those two factors really show it.

My overall impression of Palin's debate performance is that it often read as though she had strewn together soundbites. By comparison to the Couric interview it at least sounded well, but about half an hour into it, it became very clear she had no substance or depth of understanding whatsoever.

She was able to lob some attacks with catchy lines:
"Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that's for sure. And it's not what our nation needs to be able to count on. You guys opposed the surge. The surge worked. Barack Obama still can't admit the surge works."
However, the most telling moment was when she told the moderator she was basically not going to answer her questions.
"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 and let them know my track record also."
This was actually a good strategy, because it became obvious that other than energy questions, she really had no understanding of the policy issues. This way she would not look ignorant, just indignant. The idea that she would refuse to answer the debate questions, I think, needs to be seriously questioned. It has not been, and frankly there is even so much more material to look at.

In a moment we will go through some her mistakes. But I want to highlight some curious answers.

At one point they were discussing global warming.

She argued in general:
"I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet."
That's the conservative position on global warming, I understand that. But she went right back into the idea that we need to utilize domestic oil supplies.
"The chant is "drill, baby, drill." And that's what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into."
Biden missed a chance here because Palin really conflated the issue of energy independence with that of global warming. Obviously, from a global warming standpoint, it makes no difference whether you are using foreign or domestic oil supplies.

The second issue is that of Afghanistan commander, General David McKiernan. Governor Palin, of course, called him General McClellan, but that's not really the important part despite the media's focus on the name.

Senator Biden started the exchange:
" The fact is that our commanding general in Afghanistan said today that a surge -- the surge principles used in Iraq will not work-- well, let me say this again now -- our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principle in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan, not Joe Biden, our commanding general in Afghanistan.

He said we need more troops. We need government-building. We need to spend more money on the infrastructure in Afghanistan."
Gov. Palin then responded:
"Well, first, McClellan did not say definitively the surge principles would not work in Afghanistan. Certainly, accounting for different conditions in that different country and conditions are certainly different. We have NATO allies helping us for one and even the geographic differences are huge but the counterinsurgency principles could work in Afghanistan. McClellan didn't say anything opposite of that. The counterinsurgency strategy going into Afghanistan, clearing, holding, rebuilding, the civil society and the infrastructure can work in Afghanistan. And those leaders who are over there, who have also been advising George Bush on this have not said anything different but that."
Here's what General McKiernan said on Tuesday:
"First of all, please don't think that I'm saying there's no room for tribal engagement in Afghanistan, because I think it's very necessary. But I think it's much more complex environment of tribal linkages, and intertribal complexity than there is in Iraq. It's not as simple as taking the Sunni Awakening and doing the Pashtun Awakening in Afghanistan. It's much more complex than that.

But there are countless other differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, it's such a poor country, by any set of metrics you can imagine. A country that has very harsh geography. It's very difficult to move around, getting back to our reliance on helicopters. It's a country with very few natural resources, as opposed to the oil revenues that (Iraq) has. There's very little money to be generated in terms of generated in Afghanistan. The literacy rate -- you have a literate society in Iraq, you have a society that has a history of producing civil administrators, technocrats, middle class that are able to run the country in Iraq. You do not have that in Afghanistan. So there's educational challenges, challenges of human capitol that I mentioned earlier."
Key point that Biden referenced:
"So there are a lot of challenges. What I don't think is needed -- the word that I don't use in Afghanistan is the word "surge." There needs to be a sustained commitment of a variety of military and non-military resources, I believe. That's my advice to winning in Afghanistan. It won't be a short-term solution."
Third point that I want to cover here, the Vice Presidential role that Palin suggests.

Gov. Palin said:
"I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are."
She followed up:
"Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position."
Senator Biden got in one of his better responses of the night:
"Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history. The idea he doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that's the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.

And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.

The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous."
Frankly, Senator Biden got it mostly right in terms of the powers of the Vice President in his response.

The constitution is pretty explicit about the role of the Vice President:
"The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."
So where Governor Palin gets the idea that the Vice President has more powers, I do not know.

There are a couple of other mistakes that the Governor made.

At one point she claimed that troop levels in Iraq had returned to “pre-surge” levels. This is untrue, the levels have come down, but at the current plan calls for levels to remain higher than pre-surge numbers through at least early next year.
"Barack Obama even supported increasing taxes as late as last year for those families making only $42,000 a year."
According to, Obama did not.
"The budget bill in question called for an increase only on singles making that amount, but a family of four would not have been affected unless they made at least $90,000 a year."
Palin on McCain's healthcare proposal:
"He's proposing a $5,000 tax credit for families so that they can get out there and they can purchase their own health care coverage. That's a smart thing to do. That's budget neutral. That doesn't cost the government anything as opposed to Barack Obama's plan to mandate health care coverage and have universal government run program and unless you're pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately, I don't think that it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds. But a $5,000 health care credit through our income tax that's budget neutral. That's going to help."
According to
"Independent budget experts estimate McCain's plan would cost tens of billions each year, though details are too fuzzy to allow for exact estimates."
Finally Palin claimed:
"But when you talk about Barack's plan to tax increase affecting only those making $250,000 a year or more, you're forgetting millions of small businesses that are going to fit into that category. So they're going to be the ones paying higher taxes thus resulting in fewer jobs being created and less productivity."
In fact, that's again untrue, most small businesses do not make over $250,000 and would thus be unaffected by the tax increase.

Here are a few of my final thoughts on Palin. This blog has been a bit longer than I planned, but I think there are important issues that need to be analyzed.

The bottom line for me is that some people will undoubtedly like Palin's style which tends to be more "folksy" for lack of a better adjective. I might choose vacuous. From my standpoint, I think the President and Vice President need to have some sort of demonstrated depth of policy understanding. I like to have a beer and watch football as much as the next guy--I will be planted in front of my television watching football today in fact--but I have to say that I was a bit appalled by Palin's casual style.

But again, that's a matter of taste. The alarming fact for me is that she has not demonstrated a policy understanding that goes beyond a brief soundbite. I listen to the other three candidates--McCain, Obama, and Biden, and I feel whether I agree or disagree, that they have an understanding of the issues and the policy process.

Someone suggested that this reflects a liberal bias in my evaluations--that government inherently is the answer. I think I have more of a mixed view of government than a lot of liberals. I would certainly like to see government run better and I would love to cut out a lot of the wasteful programs and see a tax cut for most Americans.

I do not think my criticism of Palin is merely a matter of a belief in the role of government.

A couple of the examples I have in mind have to do with issues such as the fundamentals surrounding the bailout, her understanding of foreign policy, and tax cuts.

Do we need to go back to the Couric answer on the bailout that was all over the place? For example, I do not agree with Brian Bilbray, the Congressman from Southern California, on the bailout. However, when I watch him I believe that he understands the issues around the bailout and the reasons and rationale for him to oppose it. Guess what though--Palin supports the bailout. She could not articulate it to Katie Couric and she did not put much more substance behind it on Thursday.

Her inability to understand foreign policy details--again, conservatives support this as a legitimate government power, again, I do not think the government philosophy explains my apprehension of her lack of understanding of foreign affairs during a time when we face the two wars and a global strategy against terrorism. Should she become President, would anyone be comfortable with her working knowledge of the world?

Tax cuts are a hallmark of any conservative agenda, but she could not articulate the policy details there either. She had a few soundbites, some attacks, but no demonstrated understanding. So I disagree with any defense of her in that area.

At the end of Thursday's debate, it was clear that Sarah Palin was not going to end up being the death knell for the McCain campaign. McCain has his own problems and between them and the current state of the economy he is in trouble on his own accord. But Sarah Palin in my book did nothing to change my view of her fundamental lack of qualifications to be Vice President.

We can cite her resume as much as we want and debate over whether or not being mayor of a small town or a part-time governor of the fourth smallest state in the country is sufficient experience. We really can debate those issues. What we cannot debate, in my opinion, is that she simply, regardless of that experience, lacks the policy understanding to be President.

I am a maverick myself in a lot of ways on policy issues. I am also a populist. I do not think that there is a necessary connection between being a populist, being a maverick, disagreeing with the way this country is run or the way politics are conducting and not understanding the issues that we face. In fact, I would argue that being a maverick means that you should know the policy issues better than anyone else so that you can articulate your disagreement with the policies and develop a new course.

Sarah Palin is not a maverick, she is a know-nothing. She harbors these anti-government views, thinks she's against things, but doesn't really understand the policy implications of her views or why she dislikes government. For her it is an emotional reaction rather than an intellectual exercise. She is reflexively against these programs rather than intellectually against them.

For me as well as many thoughtful Americans on both sides on the fence, she is scary. There was an interesting contrast on Thursday night. After the debate, one of the McCain surrogates was Linda Lingle, Governor of Hawaii. She was bright, articulate, and very effective.

Why was she not the nominee? Hard to know for sure. But she seemed a better choice than Palin in every way. Well, perhaps except for one. She is not the most attractive person physically. In response to my original Palin post, several people suggested that Palin was "hot." That was really in a lot of ways a degrading remark to women. It suggests that it does not matter how inarticulate or unknowledgeable the governor is, at least she's physically attractive. There was even a reference in the National Review last night that one of the editors was aroused by the Governor winking at him on the camera, that that gesture made him sit straight up in his seat. There may be something to that.

I suppose I am an elitist as some have suggested because I am not interested in how "cute" or "hot" a candidate is but rather what their policy positions are, and as important, their ability to articulate them.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting