Who Won the Vice Presidential Debate?

If you can win a debate without answering a majority of the questions asked, Sarah Palin hit a home run. The Republican Vice Presidential nominee kept the debate on her own turf, returning to issues she felt comfortable talking about – energy, small town values, and taxes – and avoided delving into the nitty gritty of policies either foreign or domestic.

Asked about the subprime mortgage crisis, she went back to energy policy and taxes. Asked about whether she thought the Bush Administration had handled the Israel-Palestinian conflict well, she latched onto moderator’s Gwen Ifill’s mention of a two-state solution, limiting her comments to a policy issue that’s part of the colloquial dialogue about the Mideast and is widely approved of by all parties.

Palin also won on emotional appeal. She was likeable. She was funny and warm from the start. One of the best unexpected moments – she greeted Joe Biden at the start of the debate with a, “Can I call you Joe?”

She smiled broadly as she said over and over that Biden and Obama were too focused on the past, criticizing Bush’s record rather than offering better policies of their own. She seemed nice, next-door, homespun, even on the attack. But then didn’t we already know that about her?

Does that make someone worthy of being president? If Palin was expected to pass a commander in chief test, I wonder if voters felt she could step into those big shoes. The mention of Vice President Cheney’s use of his office made one think back to 9-11, when he played a significant role in helping govern the country. Could Palin do that?

That’s why Joe Biden won the night too. He showed a fluency with subjects and topics that make those uncomfortable with Barack Obama’s experience feel that there are people around him who would help him answer the 3AM phone call. Palin did not, but maybe that was never in Palin’s job description to begin with.

The nice thing as a viewer of this debate: It was civil. It was polite. It was nice to not see two candidates claw into each other for ninety minutes. But that raises another question.

Palin didn’t answer the questions. She made some mistakes. And Biden didn’t take the opportunities to go after her, as Palin at times attempted to do with him. It makes you wonder about the role of sexism, and did Biden treat her like any other opponent? Maybe that reflects the political manipulation of this campaign’s narrative. The McCain campaign turned questioning Palin about her past experience into charges of sexism. Would pushing Palin on the issues, calling her out about not answering the questions have been seen as Joe Biden unfairly going after her? It wouldn’t if he had been on stage with Hillary Clinton, as he often was during the primaries. Perhaps it’s experience-ism that was being practiced here, trying to purposely not show up someone who lacks knowledge of the issues.

To sum it up. No fireworks. No YouTube moments. Instead, a civil exchange on politics that will be remembered more for the hype that preceded it than what actually transpired over 90 minutes.

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