Network pundits were the losers in this debate

Times Television Critic

The vice presidential debate scheduled for last night didn’t happen -- at least not as envisioned by media observers with their characteristic mix of glee and dread.

Republican candidate Sarah Palin spoke in clear, concise sentences that mostly made sense, and if she didn’t answer all the questions posed to her, at least she didn’t tell the moderator that she’d “have to get back to ya.” Neither did Democrat Joe Biden ramble or froth, mention the fictional televised speeches of FDR or accidentally call the governor of Alaska “Lil’ Lady.”

If you think this is a hyperbolic description of expectations, then you didn’t catch David Gergen and his colleagues at CNN claiming that what Palin had to prove was her basic competence, including a grasp of the English language.


Meanwhile, over at MSNBC, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman announced that Biden’s job was to get out there, answer the questions and get off the stage “without making news.” And in what was perhaps the most shocking aspect of the entire event, virtually every anchor or pundit agreed that Biden had to tread carefully so as not to seem too aggressive.

If the bar had been placed any lower for this debate, they would have had to bury it.

So how surprising was it, really, that neither candidate devolved into a Jerry Springer screaming fit or fell into a state of catatonia? In fact, both were in rare form, giving what may have been their best respective campaign performances yet.

Palin came in with a clear advantage, of course. When all you have to do is prove you can address issues in a coherent way, it’s fairly easy to exceed expectations. She set her tone instantly by asking the senator at the handshake if it was OK to call him Joe. He said, “Yes, of course,” and from then on it was “Joe” and “Gov. Palin.”

Indeed, with her “bless his/her hearts” and knowing laughs, Palin may have invented an entirely new rhetorical style: random folksiness. Each bit of lighthearted “Sarahness” was followed by a Serious Face as she got down to the issues. Or at least the issues she was comfortable with.

The most pointed difference between Biden’s performance and Palin’s is that he answered pretty much each question that was asked before returning to the topic of his choice (usually how John McCain mirrors the Bush administration). Palin pronounced early on that she wasn’t necessarily going to answer questions but would instead address the American people directly.

If Palin was able to revive flagging Republican spirits by proving that she does have a basic grasp of campaign rhetoric and perhaps even the major issues facing this country, then Biden reminded Democrats why he has been a key player in their party for all these years.

His message was that the middle class drives the economy and that Barack Obama will take care of the middle class. It’s a great message given the times, and he stuck to it as tightly as Palin stuck to her “and you said the surge wouldn’t work” point on Iraq.

Biden was gracious enough not correct his opponent when she got a general’s name wrong, though he did say repeatedly that he wasn’t hearing how McCain differed from President Bush. He also rebutted any misstatements he felt she had made about his or Obama’s record in a decidedly “I was there” sort of way.

Overall, Biden was the model of graciousness. Though Palin made several condescending remarks -- “I’m happy to know we both love Israel,” she said at one point -- Biden kept his criticism aimed at McCain.

“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” Palin said at one point, accusing him of once again “pointing fingers at the past,” as if she hadn’t spent the entire hour and a half talking up McCain’s record.

In the end, perhaps the most memorable aspect of the debate was the look of confusion on the face of the network commentators after the debate they had spent days rattling on about failed to materialize.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait to hear what the viewers thought,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. And that really has to be a first.