The media frenzy over the Biden-Palin vice presidential debate suggests that this event could have a significant impact on the presidential race. Pundits, primed by Palin’s shaky performance in the Katie Couric interview, are poised for a Palin train wreck that will all but doom the McCain campaign. In fact, however, Palin’s performance almost certainly will have no impact on the election at all – unless Palin takes my advice. If she does, there is a slight chance she could boost McCain’s electoral chances. But her performance almost certainly cannot hurt him. And Biden’s performance will be largely irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential race.
Why is this? Despite the media hype, historically vice presidential debates almost never have a significant impact on the election. More often than not, the perceived “winner” of the debate ended up on the losing ticket. Remember Lloyd Bentsen’s celebrated put down of Dan Quayle in 1988? Reacting to an effort by Quayle to compare his Senate service with Jack Kennedy’s, in order to counter charges that he lacked the experience to be Vice President, Bentsen memorably responded: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience erupted in cheers as Quayle appeared momentarily stunned. Less well remembered is Quayle’s response: “Senator, that was uncalled for” which also led to cheers from the Quayle supporters. Initially, the exchange was not viewed as very significant, but after constant repetition by media, it became the defining moment of the debate and cemented the view among pundits that Bentsen had cleaned Quayle’s clock. If so, it had very little impact on the election; Bentsen could not even carry his own home state of Texas in the general election as the Bush-Quayle ticket trounced the Dukakis-Bentsen pairing, Bentsen’s debate “win” not withstanding.
If presidential debates are rarely game changers – and the first Obama-McCain debate clearly was not – vice presidential debates are even more meaningless. And, despite the media hype, this will almost certainly be true tomorrow – unless Palin ignores the advice that her supporters are undoubtedly sending her way and instead listens to me. Pundits are convinced that for her to “win” this debate, she needs to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the issues that a president will likely confront than she has to date, in order to counteract the perception that she is an intellectual lightweight who lacks the experience to hold higher office. This is precisely the wrong advice. There is no way, in the limited time she has to prepare, that she can master the volume of information expected of her to the degree that her opponent has. History suggests that debaters who over prepare invariably sound scripted and less authentic. Ronald Reagan – the Great Communicator – fell prey to this in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. His debate team crammed his head with statistics, and his performance suffered. In the second debate, responding to the plea to let Reagan be Reagan, he went off script and performed much more effectively. Palin must do the same. Biden has spent 35 years in the Senate and she cannot hope to equal his grasp of the issues any more than Obama could match McCain’s knowledge of foreign policy. But Biden is irrelevant to this debate. Much like Obama in the presidential debate, there is a much greater potential upside to Palin’s participation tomorrow than there is for Biden, who is already a known quantity. Palin is not. But she needs to ignore the temptation to try to meet the media expectations by demonstrating her mastery of the issues. It is an impossible and self-defeating task. Instead, if this debate is to be more than a media circus – if it is to benefit the Republican ticket – she needs to focus on her core audience: the Republican base and, most importantly, disaffected Clinton supporters and independents, particularly women. Her opponent is not Joe Biden – it is Barack Obama. She must never lose sight of this. At every opportunity, she must turn this debate into a contest between her and Obama. Palin must go off script and stay on the attack. Here is what she must say if this debate is to matter:
“In the last several weeks, I have come under increasing scrutiny regarding my experience and preparation to serve as Vice President. My credentials – my speech, my background, my family, my clothes! – all have been held up to extended scrutiny. Just yesterday the New York Times ran an extended article discussing my wardrobe! I don’t shy from this – I expect it. But I do ask that this same standard of scrutiny be applied to our opponent Barack Obama. Some of you in the audience – particularly those who supported Hillary Clinton – understand what is going on here. It is the old double standard. Women, to succeed, simply must be twice as good as men. That’s not a complaint – that’s a fact. Consider my opponent. If elected, Barack Obama would be the least experienced of any modern president, bar none. He has less executive experience than Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Clinton or even President Bush. He served fewer years in Congress than Truman, Kennedy, Johnson or Ford. He even has less executive experience than I do! He has never run anything in his life. In his short time in the Senate he never passed a single piece of significant legislation. His only qualification for office – his only one – is a speech he made at the Democratic convention that attracted the attention of the Far Left of the Democratic Party. But somehow the media has turned that inexperience into a virtue – as a proof that he will bring change to Washington. I, on the other hand, despite having much more governing experience, am deemed not quite ready – not quite good enough. Women out there have heard this line before – in boardrooms, on Wall St., in industry, law, medicine, and politics – “we’d love to promote you, but you just don’t have the experience necessary to handle the responsibility.” And if we try to get that experience by charting a career-centered path, we are accused of being not feminine enough because we have shirked motherhood and raising a family. If we step off the career track to raise a family, we are condemned as not being ambitious enough. We cannot win.
I understand this. But I don’t accept it. All my life I’ve confronted these obstacles – I’m confronting them now. I chose to raise a family when I was told it would hurt my political career. I’ve gone to PTA meetings, baked the cookies, roused the kids from bed – and I continue to do so as Governor of Alaska. You know what that means – you understand what it is to be a mother and hold a fulltime job. You understand the sacrifices it entails, and the roadblocks to equal opportunity that must be overcome. And those roadblocks won’t end – the double standard won’t be eliminated – until you do something about it. John McCain has given you the opportunity that Barack Obama denied his party – a chance to make real change – to send a signal that the glass ceiling has finally been shattered. All it takes is for you to stand up and say “enough” and pull the lever for the McCain-Palin ticket. Words and promises are no longer enough – you need to take action. The Democratic Party has once again sent the message that you are a second-class citizen. They had the chance to truly change politics in America, and instead they reverted to the safe route. Look at the man over there behind the podium – does he represent change? I think not.
Send a message for real change. End the double standard. Break the glass ceiling. Because if you don’t do it now, who will?”
That’s the message Sarah Palin needs to get across tomorrow. Her target audience is not the media, not the pundits, and certainly not Obama’s supporters. Right now John McCain is winning the vote of men, but losing women to Obama by 9%. For McCain to win this election, Palin must peel some of that support off, particular among low-income working class women in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Demonstrating knowledge of arcane policy details is not the way to do it. Demonstrating empathy and an understanding of their values is. This is not an election about abortion, stem cells, or other moral values. It is about education, health care, and jobs. Palin needs to spend less time cramming for a test, and more time being Palin – honing her message and reaching out to the disaffected Clinton voters.
If she can do this – if she can swing even 5% of these voters into McCain’s column, she will have won this debate, no matter what the pundits say. But to accomplish this, she needs to ignore almost every bit of advice the pundits have sent her way this last week. She needs to largely ignore Joe Biden, who is in an almost impossible position. Biden cannot help the Obama ticket – he can only hurt it.
Can she do it? It’s highly unlikely. But it may be one of the few chances left to change the dynamics of this race which to this point favor Obama. To do so, Palin needs to ignore the media pundits and let Palin be Palin.