The frenzied media probably found the first vice-presidential debate disappointing. Even after 90 minutes, neither the well-seasoned gaffe-machine nor the novice interview-bungler produced much fodder for an SNL skit or the headline news. Instead, both candidates waged a strategic battle for the middle to win over the middle class and independent voters. Palin portrayed herself as the folksy, straight-talking Washington outsider, while Biden presented himself as an experienced, detail-oriented stalwart for change from “Bush’s failed policies”.
Both candidates had clear instructions coming into the debate. Biden had to harp on about the middle-class and glue John McCain to George W. Bush, while resisting long lectures and headline grabbing condescension. Any flicker of patronization would conjure up images of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy lecture to his female vice presidential rival Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Palin, by contrast, had to reassure voters that she was well-versed on a host of issues while energizing the conservative base and drawing in independents. She simply could not afford another Katie Couric interview.
Stylistically, the candidates’ visual gestures embodied their strengths. Biden’s healthy dose of firm hand gestures illustrated the authoritativeness of his points, while Palin’s halogen gleams and the occasional wink made her seem likable even during her most hard-hitting jabs at Biden. The atmospherics were also far more cordial than the presidential debate. Both candidates smiled at each other frequently and maintained eye contact regularly, defusing potential points of tension that usually arise during such debates.
The candidates’ strategies and tactics became clear as soon as moderator Gwen Ifill kicked the debate off with domestic issues. Biden’s focus on McCain instead of Palin bought him greater space to attack. He nailed McCain to the Bush administration and painted him as an out-of-touch corporate backer with a “different value set” from the Democratic ticket and its middle-class centric policies. His effective use of bullet-point lists in responses on health care and the bailout was a good tactic to project authority and clarity. And his experience shone through quite clearly when he delved into details regarding tax dodge provisions or “Chapter 7 to Chapter 13” provisions for mortgage-holders.
Palin sought to win the middle by striking a different note. Her message was much more personal in order to resonate with the average American middle class voter. For instance, she peppered her responses with references to “kid soccer games”, “Joe Six Packs”, “hockey moms”, and “extra credit” for kids at Gladyswood Elementary School. This personal touch was combined with a commitment to a new politics of straight-talk and bipartisan cooperation to attract independents. When pushed to answer a question during the debate, she responded firmly, “I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people…”. In addition, most of her responses stressed McCain’s much-touted role as a “bipartisan” or “maverick” seeking to bring reform to Washington.
The battle became more heated as the debate switched to foreign policy and other general issues. Biden on two separate occasions questioned McCain’s “maverick” image to undermine the Arizona senator’s most advertised argument for independents. At one point, Biden listed four iterations of “I don’t see how his policy is different from George Bush’s” with specific references to Iran, Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Biden also portrayed McCain as being alienated from the “middle” on negotiating with rogue regimes and nonproliferation efforts. Meanwhile, his vivid descriptions of everything from Bosnia to Darfur to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty displayed his own experience.
Palin also tried to deflate the Democratic attempt to win the middle through a new kind of politics by portraying Biden as a partisan Washington insider and flip-flopper. When Biden stated that the Bush administration’s Israel policy had been an “abject failure”, Palin railed against his partisanship, quipping, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. There you go again pointing backwards again.” She also used some of Biden’s criticisms of Obama to prove the campaign’s lack of “straight-talk”, including his earlier denouncement of the Illinois senator’s decision to vote against funding the war in contrast to his current approval, or his “vote for the war” and his current opposition to it.
Eventually, the battle for the middle ended rather predictably, with Biden promising to revive the middle-class ethic of hard work and perseverance and Palin pledging to fight for the middle class. The pundits say Biden won and Palin exceeded expectations. But if both sides use different approaches to reach a similar goal in a debate, it may be better to evaluate each side on the success of its own approach. Some may like Palin’s personable straight-talk since it signals an administration that empathizes with myriad voter concerns in two wars and an economic crisis. Others may prefer Biden’s authoritativeness because it projects a campaign which can firmly address these concerns. But, as has been said here before, most will probably pay little heed to the vice-presidential contest or forget about it when they cast their ballots.
Prashanth Parameswaran is an intern at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com.