EDITORIAL: Success in Debate Meant Not Losing
Whatever happened in Thursday's vice-presidential "debate" between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin, it couldn't really be called a debate at all.
Debate involves interactive discussion, and there was little of that. Moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS asked questions -- rather unimaginative ones -- and the nominees responded to them. That doesn't mean they always answered them directly and satisfactorily.
The two candidates seem to have gone into the much-anticipated session with the same goal: not so much to enlighten the electorate through a spirited and spontaneous exchange of views as to avoid messing up. And to that extent, at least, both pulled it off with aplomb.
Palin desperately needed to keep from suffering any more damage of the kind she had inflicted on herself during a couple of unfortunate TV interviews. In that regard, she did succeed in stopping the bleeding. She generally managed to appear poised and in control, though all the you-betchas and darn-rights and perky winks wore thin.
Some have asked how Palin did so much better on Thursday than in her earlier interviews with CBS's Katie Couric. The answer: Ifill's questions were predictable ones of the kind that Palin had been endlessly coached and rehearsed on. Couric's were more unexpected. Even so, Palin basically ignored Ifill's questions at several points, launching instead into canned recitations.
Biden's damage-control mandate was not to blab on tiresomely and pedantically, as he is known to do; not to appear condescending to Palin; and not to commit any of his regrettable gaffes. He, too, pulled it out of the fire.
Biden went beyond that, in our opinion, generally looking more vice-presidential -- or even presidential -- than his opponent. Based on a transcript of what was said, he came across as more informed and coherent than his opponent -- whose responses, if analyzed in the light of day, were sometimes baffling. Asked about the use of nuclear weapons, for instance, she replied that "nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people and too many parts of our planet." Whatever that meant.
Both participants got in some cheap shots and distortions of their opponents' stands, but both tried hard to remain cordial.
Bottom line: On debating points, Biden scored higher. A couple of instant polls put him ahead. But since expectations for Palin were at such an unprecedented low, she didn't have to win; she just had to keep from losing embarrassingly. In that sense, ironically, the debate was surely more of a shot-in-the-arm to her than to Biden.
Now it's on to Nashville and Tuesday's second A-team debate, which hopefully will be closer to the real thing.
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