If you tuned in hoping for a messy train wreck or an embarrassing blunder in the first and only vice-presidential debate Thursday night (October 2), you were likely disappointed. But if you stuck around to watch Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joseph Biden mix it up for 90 minutes of much harder jabs at each other than the top of their respective tickets doled out last week, you got a good sense of why each candidate made the cut.
Despite all the bluster before the debate about how first-term governor Palin was untested and was potentially headed for an embarrassing showing following a series of gaffe-filled network interviews, the self-proclaimed "hockey mom" from Wasilla, Alaska, held her own against 35-year Senate veteran Biden.
She opened the debate at St. Louis' Washington University by greeting Biden center stage and disarmingly asking, "Can I call you Joe?" Then the former sportscaster, while sometimes light on specifics, peppered her responses with folksy phrases like "darn right" and "Joe six-pack," exuding a small-town American pride while looking directly into the camera and, at a few points, winking while making a point as she threw a few sharp elbows at the Democratic ticket.
Biden, who came in with decades of experience debating the issues but also with a reputation for long-windedness and letting his emotions get the best of him, also defied expectations, giving relatively succinct, straightforward answers to questions on the economy, foreign policy the role of the vice president and Iraq.
He seemed at times amused by Palin's criticisms of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's stance on the war in Iraq, one of the major topics of the night, occasionally smiling at her statements, but never directly attacking her lack of experience on foreign policy but instead focusing his fire on Republican candidate Senator John McCain's voting record in the Senate.
When it came down to the main differences between them, Palin said her ticket was looking forward, while the Democrats were busy looking over their shoulders.
"Enough is enough with looking backward and playing the blame game," Palin said in response to a question about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. "There's a time, too, when Americans are gonna say, 'Enough is enough,' with your ticket constantly looking backwards and pointing fingers and doing the blame game. There have been huge blunders in the war, there have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with any administration, but for a ticket that wants to talk about change and looking into the future, there's just too much finger-pointing backwards to ever make us believe that that's where you're going."
The debate opened with a question about the most pressing issue of the day, the $700 billion financial-bailout bill, currently held up in Congress. Biden took the opportunity to lay out Obama's plan for the bill, while also hitting McCain for changing his stance on the state of the economy. "It was two Mondays ago John McCain said at 9 o'clock in the morning that the fundamentals of the economy were strong," Biden said. "Two weeks before that, he said George - we've made great economic progress under George Bush's policies. Nine o'clock, the economy was strong. Eleven o'clock that same day, two Mondays ago, John McCain said that we have an economic crisis. That doesn't make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he's out of touch."
Decrying the partisanship that has stopped the bill from advancing, Palin hit back that Obama had voted along party lines 96 percent of the time while in the Senate, saying that Americans are tired of that "old politics as usual."
Biden and Palin had a vigorous debate about economic issues, fundamentally disagreeing about what is needed to get the country back on its feet, with Biden repeatedly pointing to what he said was a $4 billion tax cut for ExxonMobil as proof that McCain was continuing the corporate-handout policies of the Bush administration. Palin hit back that Obama's tax plan would raise taxes and that he voted in favor of the same bill giving oil companies those tax breaks.
"The nice thing about running with John McCain is I can assure you he doesn't tell one thing to one group and then turns around and tells something else to another group, including his plans that will make this bailout plan, this rescue plan, even better," Palin said in one of several exchanges in which she aggressively took on Biden using the signature sarcasm-with-a-smile approach that won over so many Republican backers at the Republican National Convention last month.
They clearly differed on some issues — Palin said she didn't think climate change was entirely manmade, Biden said he did — and agreed on others, such as extending benefits to same-sex couples, though Palin said she was adamant about defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
But it was on the war in Iraq where they really squared off. Palin repeatedly argued that McCain had supported the surge in Iraq and that the strategy had worked, while claiming that Obama voted to cut off funds for troops. "I know that the other ticket opposed this surge, in fact, even opposed funding for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan," she said. "Barack Obama voted against funding troops there after promising that he would not do so. And Senator Biden, I respected you when you called him out on that. You said that his vote was political and you said it would cost lives."
Biden countered that Palin had not answered the question about what the McCain plan was for an exit strategy in Iraq, arguing that the one Obama was proposing was the same as the plan President Bush is currently pursuing. "The only odd man out here, only one left out, is John McCain, number one," he said. "Number two, with regard to Barack Obama not, quote, 'funding the troops,' John McCain voted the exact same way. John McCain voted against funding the troops because of an amendment he voted against had a timeline in it to draw down American troops. And John said, 'I'm not going to fund the troops if, in fact, there's a timeline.' Barack Obama and I agree fully and completely on one thing: You've got to have a timeline to draw down the troops and shift responsibility to the Iraqis."
Biden then argued that the Obama plan was to shift the responsibility to the Iraqi government and have a gradual 16-month withdrawal. Though she frequently referred to her outsider status in Washington, Palin was unafraid to mix it up with Biden, hitting him with a zinger about how he had supported McCain's military policies in Iraq and at one point said he'd be "honored" to run on a ticket with McCain, "Until you became the VP pick here." She also brought up a comment Biden made in the Democratic primaries about how he thought Obama was not ready to be commander in chief.
"I know, again, that you opposed the move he made to try to cut off funding for the troops, and I respect you for that," she said. "I don't know how you can defend that position now, but I know that you know, especially with your son in the National Guard and I have great respect for your family also and the honor that you show our military. Barack Obama, though, another story there. Anyone I think who can cut off funding for the troops after promising not to is another story."
Biden seemed ready for the back-and-forth, responding, "Let's get straight who has been right and wrong. John McCain and Dick Cheney said while I was saying we would not be greeted as liberators, we would not — this war would take a decade and not a day, not a week and not six months, we would not be out of there quickly," he said. "John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shias got along with each other without reading the history of the last 700 years. John McCain said there would be enough oil to pay for this. John McCain has been dead wrong. I love him. As my mother would say, 'God love him,' but he's been dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war. Barack Obama has been right. There are the facts."
Even as she was sparring with the Democratic ticket, Palin seemed unafraid to take shots at Bush as well, pointing out the "huge blunders" in the war in Iraq and throughout his administration, while referring to Obama's comments about sitting down with heads of rogue states as "reckless" and "dangerous."
That opened the door for Biden to hit upon one of the Obama campaign's main themes: that a McCain administration would be more of the same. "I haven't heard how [McCain's] policy is going to be different on Iran than George Bush's," Biden said. "I haven't heard how his policy is going to be different with Israel than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Afghanistan is going to be different than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Pakistan is going to be different than George Bush's."
After Palin talked about her heartland connections and the worries of average Americans near the end of the debate, Biden teared up as he talked about the death of his wife and daughter in 1972 and the struggles of the average American.
"I understand what it's like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says, 'I've got to leave, champ, because there's no jobs here,' " he said. "I understand as well as, with all due respect, the governor or anybody else what it's like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They're looking for help. They're looking for help. They're not looking for more of the same."
In closing, Palin said she and McCain would fight for middle-class families, just like hers. "I've been there. I know what the hurts are," she said. "I know what the challenges are. And, thank God, I know what the joys are, too, of living in America. We are so blessed. And I've always been proud to be an American. And so has John McCain."
Calling it the "most important election you'll ever vote in your entire life," Biden signed off by saying that the past eight years have resulted in a "very deep hole" economically and a bruised image abroad for America, something that requires fundamental change to repair it.
"We measure progress in America based on whether or not someone can pay their mortgage, whether or not they can send their kid to college, whether or not they're able to, when they send their child, like we have abroad — or I'm about to, abroad, and John has as well, I might add — to fight, that they are the best-equipped and they have everything they need," he said. "You know, in the neighborhood I grew up in, it was all about dignity and respect — neighborhood like most of you grew up in. And in that neighborhood, it was filled with women and men, mothers and fathers who taught their children if they believed in themselves, if they were honest, if they worked hard, if they loved their country, they could accomplish anything. We believed it, and we did."
In the end, by most accounts, it was a draw in that neither candidate made a huge mistake. But as most pundits will tell you, the VP debate won't likely change much and with McCain down by seven points in most major polls with just 32 days left until the election, it is up to the top of the ticket for both parties to make their case in the final two debates, the next of which takes place on Tuesday.
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