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What Did Sarah Learn?

October 7, 2008

The frisky pit bull bounded out of her debate camp confinement, lipstick glistening under the PBS staging lights. Her black suit might have echoed Susan B. Anthony, were it not for the decidedly un-serious peplum that added a not so subtle, curtsy-cute feminine flourish.

But then nothing about Sarah Palin is either subtle or uncalculated. Just as her glittering rhinestone flag pin, ten times the size of the one on ol’ “Say it ain’t so, Joe” Biden’s lapel, intended to telegraph “I’m a red-blooded, patriotic all-American girl”, her perky (Red Bull enhanced?), “Hey, kin I call ya Joe?” aimed squarely to disarm both her audience and her debate adversary.

I mean, what was Biden going to say? “No, honey, call me Senator Biden”?

She certainly knew full well her political future and that of her presidential running mate John McCain hung in no small measure on her performance at this, the only vice-presidential debate. To that end, she had practiced forcefully spitting out her most emotion-laden words like “maverick!” the Republican red meat “tax cuts!” or the ultimate epithet “Washington DC!”, even while flashing a shining smile. And she looked absolutely gleeful when she got to pounce on Biden’s promise that “We will end this war” applause line with her obviously practiced sound bite: “Your plan is the white flag of surrender.”

Palin is a fierce competitor, as her high school basketball teammates knew when they nicknamed her Sarah Barracuda. If you’re a feminist, you’ve got to love the way this woman embraces her powers, both the power of her physical attractiveness and the power of her current political opportunity to become America’s first female vice president. It’s pretty heady, even for someone who said, when told she might become governor someday, that she’d really rather be president. You can't blame her for going full bore for the brass ring.

The chattering classes used the word “spirited” often in describing the tone and tenor of the debate, and most concluded that Palin didn't knock it out of the ballpark, but her performance kept McCain-Palin in the game. That was no surprise, since the format agreed to had been designed to favor her particular strengths.

To me, the only real surprise in this debate was how well Biden did. Republican strategist David Gergen said it was the best performance of his life.

Most of the pre-debate speculation had centered on whether Palin would measure up. I was frankly much more worried that Biden would be too smart for his own good—that he would display his deep knowledge and experience as Al Gore did in 2000, and afterward find himself characterized as arrogant. People like perky a lot more than they like arrogant. And if they don’t like you, it doesn’t matter how smart you are; you won’t get elected.

More than once at Senate hearings, I’ve seen Biden become testy and condescending with women. Anita Hill is a case well known, but I myself have been pointed to publicly by Biden and excoriated for insisting that the Senate Democrats shouldn’t roll over and confirm George Bush’s judicial nominees without evaluating whether their judicial philosophy is consistent with American principles of justice and equality for all, including women.

That why Biden’s reply to debate moderator Gwen Ifill’s question, “Can you bring up a single policy issue where you had to change your position over time due to changed circumstances?” was to me the pivotal point of the debate. It spoke volumes about the man’s character, his principles, and his willingness to learn.

“Yes,” he said without skipping a beat.

I was of the view that the only criteria for judges is judicial temperament, had not been convicted of a crime of moral turpitide…. It took about five years for me to learn that the ideology of that judge does matter

That's why I led the fight against Judge Bork. Had he been on the court, I suspect there would be a lot of changes that I don't like and the American people wouldn't like, including everything from Roe v. Wade to issues relating to civil rights and civil liberties.

And so that -- that -- that was one of the intellectual changes that took place in my career as I got a close look at it. And that's why I was the first chairman of the Judiciary Committee to forthrightly state that it matters what your judicial philosophy is. The American people have a right to understand it and to know it.

In contrast, Pit Bull Palin answered that same question by referring in her usual generalities to compromises she had struck in state government.

He went immediately to a question of principle; she went to a question of expedience.

Ever the calculating competitor, for Palin the game is simply about winning. In this debate, Palin certainly lived to compete another day. But Biden won the debate hands down on his humanity and on his substance.

You betcha.

Cross posted from Heartfeldt Politics

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