Palin-Biden Debate: Lots of Sound, Little Fury, Signifying Nothing

No blunders on either side, hollow redemption for Palin.

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SHOREHAM, Vt.—Let's stipulate this straight off: Nothing that transpired in the vice presidential debate Thursday night will have a substantive effect on the presidential race.

We learned this: Both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are apt pupils when it comes to debate coaching.

Yes, the Alaska governor avoided the jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching gaffes which have become her trademark, but in this she was aided and abetted by Gentleman Joe Biden and a disappointing Gwen Ifill.

The conventional wisdom regarding Joe Biden entering the debate was that the Democrat must (a) avoid an FDR-was-on-TV-in-1929 blunder and (b) perhaps more important, not give the McCain campaign an opening to decry sexism on his part (note that this is distinct from actually being sexist, which would, of course, be far worse). He avoided mistakes on both counts.

Marc Ambinder put it well:

To practiced ears, Palin memorized and repeated talking points and Biden responded to the questions and argued. Palin dodged questions and seemed vague; but then again, for those whose only impression of Palin has been the one Tina Fay performed on Saturday Night Live, she cleared the bar.

Indeed, Palin displayed an impressive ability to regurgitate her talking points and did so with a folksy tone that may well play with heartland voters (not so much with this northeastern, big-city, single-malt-Scotch-drinking, Prius-driving elitist—and nor with uncommitted Ohio voters, judging by the CNN senso-dial-o-meter during one of her extended "Say it ain't so, Joe, doggone, etc. etc." moments).

But beware supporters and others who are quick to suggest that Palin's performance Thursday night should expunge from memory her comically faltering inability to answer fairly basic political questions from Katie Couric and others. This was no exoneration of Palin. Here, Palin got to answer predictable questions with little flak from Biden. And when she lacked an actual answer and had to pivot to a talking point, Palin managed to avoid the uncomfortable "We both know you've stumped me but I'm going to try to squirm out of it" grin that she flashed so often with Couric.

But the key difference was Ifill. In her interviews, Couric would listen to Palin's boilerplate, platitudinous answers—and then Couric followed up, asking for specifics. Which cases beside Roe . . . ? When has John McCain favored regulation? Precisely which are your regular news sources? Why does being from Alaska qualify as foreign policy experience?

Couric would implacably keep asking the question until Palin's haplessness was laid uncomfortably bare.

Ifill, on the other hand, rarely followed up, as when she failed to ask Palin precisely what extra powers are available to the vice president (of which more later). And, for better or worse, she asked Palin none of the questions over which the Alaskan had already quite spectacularly tripped (including those above andthe Bush Doctrine question).

I wish someone had followed up long enough to ask Palin about the contradiction between two central tenets of her early debate, when she would declare that a McCain administration would simultaneously increase regulation while reining in the government and getting it out of the way. There is surely a way to square this circle, but it would have been nice to see if she could explain it.

Of course, Palin avoided questions with a brazenness rarely seen inside the Beltway—"I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear..."—so we probably wouldn't have gotten an answer anyway.