The stakes for tonight's Vice Presidential debate are higher than in the average election. Most opinion polls show that vice presidential candidates usually do not significantly influence the final decisions of voters. Conventional wisdom, however, has not always proven helpful this year.
Initially, John McCain's selection of the virtually unknown and underexperienced Palin brought excitement to his campaign. The conservative base of the Republican party rallied around the ticket, GOP fundraising spiked, and Barack Obama's continual lead in the polls evaporated. Republicans proclaimed that the "Mac was back."
Well, after a series of underwhelming media performances, the luster around Sara Palin is beginning to wear thin. Some conservatives have openly called for McCain to drop her from the ticket. Democrats and late night television have had lots of fun at her expense. McCain now trails in the polls, and voters are not convinced that Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President (and certainly not President -- if the need arose).
So, with all of these developments, tonight's debate is critical for McCain's candidacy. The Obama team has played the typical expectations game, incredulously calling Palin a "terrific debater." Palin has responded in kind saying that Biden is a "great debater." But the edge certainly would go to Biden, given his experience in politics and his comfort with and history of engaging the media.
But Biden should not tread lightly. Many commentators have argued that Biden should not debate Palin too forcefully, lest he appear sexist. But the opposite -- debating lightly -- is sexist. It lowers the bar for a woman. It demonstrates that we should not expect much from women in terms of politics and intellect. Biden should give Palin the grace and respect due any other candidate.
I had similar thoughts during the Democratic primaries when many people passionately (if not neurotically) attempted to shield Obama from even the slightest criticism and distorted the harshness of critiques he received. Many of the arguments that Clinton made during the primaries were typical fodder for elections -- not a violent throwing of the "kitchen sink" or kneecpapping" of a candidate, as many Obama supporters described them. This type of paternalism benefits no one. And it certainly is not antiracist or antisexist.
Based on her interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, Palin has a tough road ahead. In the best light, Palin's lackluster performances likely result, in part, from her relative newness to the national press -- one that is usually tough during campaigns (probably even tougher with Republicans this year). Her inexperience may make her come across as did James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate in 1992. Stockdale, like Perot, had absolutely no experience in politics, but he lacked the charm and charisma of his running mate. His performance during the debate that year was such a disaster that even Dan Quayle emerged looking sophisticated. At one moment, Stockdale told the moderator to repeat a question because he neglected to turn on his hearing aid. It was a mess.
Experienced politicians -- experienced speakers generally -- know how to appear polished; they know how to evade answers, but still give something coherent to listeners; they know how to come across smart or just competent, even when they are completely unprepared. Palin does not have the level of experience on the national stage -- or in politics -- to give her advantages in this area. Coupled with her lack of knowledge of many national and international issues, her performance could destroy McCain's campaign.
Despite her lack of experience and credible political background, one should not count out Palin. I have watched footage of her in prior media interviews (before her vice presidential campaign), and she came across as very poised and knowledgeable. Granted, many of the topics related to Alaska-specific concerns such as state energy policy, in which she is well versed. Nevertheless, she was not stuttering and lost for words. She had a script, but she could deviate from it and offer deeper answers. She seemed sufficiently polished. Also, Palin excellently delivered her speech (admittedly scripted) at the Republican National Convention. If she is "on" tonight, she could help revitalize McCain's sagging campaign and reassure voters. Because the economy has probably done more damage to McCain's campaign than anything else, the current lead by Obama could easily dissipate if Palin can renew excitement in McCain's candidacy.
Many Republican operatives have blamed Palin's poor performances of late on her "handlers." They say that McCain's team has tried too hard to script her and to keep her narrowly tied to the talking points. They say that it is not her nature to speak in that fashion and that, as a result, she comes across as someone who is simply regurgitating materials and who is unable to offer any extemporaneous insights. According to some reports, McCain has assembled a new team for tonight's debate, and the word among "insiders" (unnamed, of course) is that a new Palin will emerge tonight. Although one has to consider the source of these proclamations, Palin's recent interviews do not come close to matching her performance in media appearances during her time in Alaska politics. But despite its proximity to Russia, Alaska politics does not involve foreign policy, and it has not exposed her to some of the important national issues (like the deficit) that a president encounters (due to its energy deposits, Alaska typically has a budget surplus). Nonetheless, I would not rush to conclude that this debate is a slam-dunk for Biden (who has his own issue with "gaffes"). Whatever the outcome, this one should prove very interesting, given the high stakes and uncertainty.