The Joe and Sarah show

Republicans can now remove their hands from their eyes. Gov. Sarah Palin shared a stage with Sen. Joe Biden and for 90 minutes skirted the edge of the abyss but avoided the plunge. Luckily for her, their debate Thursday night avoided serious civics -- no questions about Supreme Court rulings and only the briefest exposition on what constitutes the vice presidency. She did nothing to arrest her slide from phenomenon to embarrassment, but her conservative supporters, many jumping ship in recent days, can take solace that she correctly pronounced the names of several world leaders.

In avoiding catastrophe, she was aided by Biden, whose looping answers drifted along a current known only to him. His best friend was the clock.

If these two candidates -- aided and abetted by the singularly inarticulate work of moderator Gwen Ifill -- combined to produce one of the worst debates in modern American presidential history, they did at least reveal the goals of the participants, as Palin reached for folksiness and Biden appealed to the cerebral. “Darn right we need tax relief,” said one. “We have a different value set,” said the other. Guess who said which?

In one sense, both of those efforts were authentic. Palin has every right to be considered an everywoman; no one can deny how average she is. And Biden is entitled to some claim on intellect; he’s spent many years in Washington arguing complex issues, to mixed results. But both stepped on their message. Palin’s attempts to seem regular drew so heavily from her script that she revealed more about her handlers than herself. And Biden’s syntax made it hard to credit him with anything approaching genius.


Beyond style, the debate did have its moments. They sparred vigorously over Iraq -- Biden archly pointed out that Palin presented no plan at all, and she smugly accused him of raising a “white flag of surrender.” One smaller but revealing moment occurred on the margins of the main topics. Asked about climate change, this was Palin’s reply: “I’m not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet. But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don’t want to argue about the causes.” Understandably.

In the end, Biden left voters with a more constructive vision of the government and a more compelling case for how it has failed the nation under President Bush. Palin stumbled around the question of how much to embrace and how much to reject that failed administration. She insisted that she’s part of a “team of mavericks,” but said little about what that team would do. It was not a reassuring night. Thankfully, the presidential candidates return to the stage next week.