Evaluation: The Vice Presidential Debate

I suspect that some watched tonight’s vice presidential debate for the same reason they watch NASCAR races. They wanted to see someone crash and burn, especially Sarah Palin. Well, Governor Palin didn’t crash and burn. She kept her poise, polish, and graciousness. She performed well, as did Biden. Still, the debate was painful to watch because of irritating things both candidates did.

Palin connected effectively with the middle class voters. One of the people CBS News spoke to after the debate said it best, “It’s like one of us being up there on that stage.” But she also seemed to have better command of the facts than she did in her previous TV interviews. She seemed comfortable this time giving specifics about Obama and Biden’s voting record, and talking about the situation in the Middle East.

What irritated me about her (besides her fingernails-on-chalkboard voice) is how she frequently launched into canned campaign stump speeches that didn’t have to do with the question. I found myself shouting at the TV, “Just answer the question!” Staying “on message” may be fine on the campaign trail, but as a leader, you have to be prepared to address any issue or question that comes up. In that regard, I wasn’t impressed by Governor Palin.

Don’t get too comfortable, Democrats. I have a few bones to pick with your guy.

Biden impressed me with his mastery of the facts. Two of them especially impressed me:

  • His knowledge of Iranian politics. I’m relieved that one of the candidates finally pointed out that President Ahmadinejad doesn’t hold the true power in Iran, the clerics do. He can speak all he wants about wiping Israel off the map, but he won’t be able to do it without the clerics’ backing.
  • His rebuttal to Sarah Palin’s comment about flexibility of the role of VP. He gave a specific definition from the Constitution about what the role of vice president is and why attempts to broaden that role are dangerous.

He came across as someone who knows what he’s doing, someone you can feel comfortable about being in charge.

So, what bothered me about Biden? He rarely looked at the audience. He spent most of the time looking at his notes. Even when he was near tears talking about being a single dad after his wife’s fatal car accident, he never looked fully at the audience. It’s a standard in our culture that you look people in the eye. When people don’t, it undermines people’s trust and confidence in them. Compared to his folksy, one-of-us opponent, Biden put himself at a disadvantage.

Like it or not, appearances do matter. When I think about Biden, I think about the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. As the story goes, Nixon sounded better, but Kennedy won the debate simply because he looked better on TV. I also think about Reagan’s jocular “There he goes again” in the 1980 debate with Carter and Stockwell’s disoriented apparance in the 1992 vice presidential debate. Even this election season had McCain’s apparent anger in the first debate when he wouldn’t even look at Obama.

In these times like these, we need a leader we can trust. We need someone who we feel will tell us the truth, who we can depend on to make difficult decisions, and someone who can reassure us when the worst happens. The impression these candidates give can be as important, if not more so, than their specific policy plans and experience.