Friday, October 03, 2008

Palin wins a close debate over Biden, but a win is a win.

What winning means.

The important question to ask about the Biden-Palin VP debate is who is likely to have wooed more undecided voters to her or his side. To this analyst, that’s what winning the debate means. The candidates aren’t trying to get a debate coach to praise them; they are trying to win voters’ hearts and minds.

Those instant CNN and CBS polls that declared Biden the winner last night gave no indication of asking the right question. CBS asked five hundred uncommitted voters-- who won, as opposed to-- did the debate change your vote. Those are very different questions. Same problem with CNN, who polled “all voters,” as opposed to undecideds, but apparently asked the same question.

Pollster Frank Luntz, on the other hand, put together a focus group of thirty, or so, voters for FNC. Luntz said the voters had split evenly in 2004 for Bush and Kerry and before the debate they were all undecided between Obama and McCain, and were evenly split on Palin. After the debate, most were positive on Palin. More importantly, three reported they were more likely to vote for McCain and one for Obama, due to the debate and the rest were not affected one way or the other as to their presidential vote. That is this reporter’s assessment. It was a close debate, with a slight advantage to Palin in winning over changeable minds.

Palin gets a big assist from PBS’ Ifill

Palin lucked out by having PBS’ Gwen Ifill as moderator. Ifill doesn’t seem to know how to ask follow-up questions or maybe she just didn’t want to—perhaps because of allegations re her conflict of interest relating to her book deal focusing on four new African-American politicians, including Obama, and scheduled to be released on the January 20, 2009 Presidential inauguration day.

Palin, as was clear in her Katie Couric interview, does not have the depth yet, on national issues, to handle follow-ups. Last night, she didn’t face any from the moderator. Her opponent, Biden, apparently decided he did not want to look like he was beating up on a woman, so he reserved his attacks, or follow-ups, for McCain. Big time advantage, Sarah Palin.

Bailouts and taxes

There were few, if any, incisive, substantive comments from either candidate. If you cared about the 700 billion dollar bailout, you learned little last night. From Biden, you got a recitation of Obama’s principles on the bailout. That was a snoozer. From Palin, you got populist phrases that her boss, McCain, likes to use, e.g., the two mavericks will go after those who practice “greed and deception,” on Wall St. Just what Republicans want, more mindless populism from the Presidential ticket.

On taxes, the candidates both argued the other’s presidential candidate would raise taxes on the poor or the middle class. With no follow-ups, the VP candidates could get away with bloody murder and they did. Again, advantage Palin. Substance and depth don’t matter when both candidates are making things up, or shall we say, exaggerating and obfuscating.

Taxing Healthcare insurance benefits

Then there was Biden’s claim that McCain’s $5000 tax credit for healthcare insurance was more than offset by McCain’s desire to tax insurance benefits received from one’s employer. Without getting complicated, the answer is that such a tax is designed to offset the bias that the current tax code has, i.e., taxing income in the form of money but not income in the form of healthcare benefits. That bias is one reason why employers provide healthcare benefits, instead of income that could be used to buy healthcare insurance.

If congress were to drop that tax code bias, more employees would prefer the income to healthcare benefits and that would tend to make health insurance less tied to one’s job and more portable, which most people think is a good thing. Palin either doesn’t know that or thought it was too difficult for her to articulate. In any case, she never responded to Ifill’s invitation to respond to that issue. Ifill let Palin get away with the non-answer because, again, she either doesn’t know how to ask follow-ups or was afraid to. Biden, despite all the knowledge his supporters say he has accumulated by spending almost his entire adult life in the Senate, apparently doesn’t understand that insurance-tax issue, either. Advantage Palin.

Biden’s whopper

Then there was Biden’s whopper that Obama didn’t say he would sit down with the likes of Hugo Chavez, without preconditions and Biden then argued that Presidents should do that anyway. That whole argument was silly, not to mention inconsistent, but Ifill let Biden get away with it because she again, doesn’t know how to do follow-ups or was afraid to.

The origins of Gwen Ifill

You have to remember that when Gwen Ifill did her first appearance on Washington Week in Review as a panelist she did not know that panelists gave opinions on issues, pols and events. She had to be coaxed into doing so. Really, this reporter saw it, to his amazement. Such a person won’t gravitate naturally to follow-ups. This might have been one reason why Team McCain never objected to Ifill’s conflict of interest in favor of Obama, which was publicly known for quite a while. If anybody could cure Palin’s weakness, it wasn’t team McCain’s handlers, it was PBS’ Ifill. How ironic. For once, PBS actually helped the Republican.

Style and smarts

On style, as the Politico’s Roger Simon kept saying on MSNBC’s post debate analysis, despite repeated browbeatings by lefty Chris Matthews, Palin scored well in TV land with her folksy, warm, human behavior and her attractive, youthful, energetic appearance. As Simon reminded Matthews, the smarter candidate doesn’t always win the debate or the race. Nor does the most knowledgeable, and Biden knew the issues better.

Indeed, our “smartest,” presidents have generally not been rated the best performers by Presidential historians. See, e.g., Woodrow Wilson, after which we, of course, named the prestigious Woodrow Wilson fellowships, even though Wilson may rank among the bottom quartile of Presidents in terms of his performance.

Palin is an attractive, likeable woman, unlike, say, Hillary (which is not to say that Hillary would not be a good President). I mean, the best Obama could say about Hillary is that Hillary was “likeable enough.” Obama could never say that about Palin and keep a straight face. Biden was likeable last night, but not as likeable as his opponent. And, Biden certainly is not as attractive as Palin, unless perhaps Jill Biden is judging.

Playing by the rules

Joe six-pack, as Palin called him, probably loved it when Palin said, “I am not going to answer the questions the way [Biden] and the moderator want to hear and I am going to let [people] know my record.” Matthews, in his post debate “analysis,” decried that statement as a proclamation that Palin would not “play by the rules.” Simon corrected Matthews again.

Palin, the second coming of Dick Cheney?

Palin, near the end of the debate, suggested as VP, she would, as the Constitution permits, do more in the Senate, than just cast tie breaking votes. It sounded as if she meant she would try to work with Congress, which seems well within the U. S. Constitution. Not to Matthews. He rejected the idea as if Palin had said she would form a military junta or dissolve Congress. Simon again corrected Matthews. Nonetheless, Matthews tried that argument out on virtually every guest, imploring them to agree that this showed Palin was the second coming of Cheney. It was a long night for Chris.

Stopping the bleeding of Team McCain

Governor Palin did what she needed to do. She either “won,’ the debate or did well enough to stop the bleeding of the campaign caused by her Couric interview and the incoherent reaction of President Bush, his Treasury Secretary Paulson, Fed Chairman Bernanke and the Republican congressional leadership to a troubled world economy. Indeed, Chris Matthews and Newsweek’s Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Howard Fineman (who has become almost the equivalent of Matthews’ straightman) both agreed with Roger Simon that Palin “beat the spread.”

Former senior Clinton advisor, Paul Begala, on MSNBC, tried to argue that although Palin helped herself for 2012, she didn’t help McCain because she didn’t effectively advance the argument that Obama is too risky to be President. That one is going to have to be won by McCain, Paul. The woman may be a good debater, but she is not that good.

Axelrod’s concession.

It was left to David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist and spinner, to concede the win to Palin. After the debate, he argued Palin lost because she hadn’t distinguished McCain from Bush. As Roger Simon said, if Biden had really won, Axelrod would have been crowing that Biden proved, “Palin wasn’t ready for prime time.” But, Axelrod didn’t argue that because he couldn’t.

November 4: It’s the President, stupid.

Palin had limited goals and she met them. A good woman, like a good man, knows her limitations. As CNN’s John King emphasized to this reporter, at the Republican Convention, this presidential election will turn on Obama and McCain.

Palin may energize the Republican base and Biden may reassure those who worry about Obama’s lack of experience, but on November 4, 2008, this country will be electing a President and neither Palin nor Biden has been nominated for that slot. Not yet, at least.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at *************************************************************
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