I think Joe Biden just gave the greatest presidential campaign debate performance I have ever seen. He was absolutely commanding and absolutely convincing. But (and you’ll have to read all the way down before I explain this) he gift-wrapped two big opportunities for the McCain campaign if the campaign is smart enough and tough enough to exploit them.
I thought Sarah Palin did about as well as she could. She wasn’t bad. She wasn’t great, by any means. But she was out of her league. Unfortunately, my opinion of her performance was HIGHER than that of my “test group.” I watched with two women, both rather apolitical but both conservative, both of whom wanted her to do well, both in the mid-thirties to mid-forties age range. They thought she was absolutely godawful.
Young woman #1: “She’s just not polished enough.”
“ANSWER the question!”
and, at the end: “He smoked her. He smoked her. He smoked her.”
Young woman #2: “She’s just a calamity.” and again at the end: “She was calamitous.”
Both young women thought in particular that Palin souned like a broken record talking about Alaska as an energy state, as if that is the only subject she really knows well and the rest was just memorized as if for a test. And both were incredibly annoyed that she so often strayed from the question. Both women also thought Biden did a superb job. “I don’t agree with anything he said,” said Young woman #1, “but he sounded convincing” — and extremely knowledgeable, in a very reassuring way.
Frankly, I thought Palin was pretty solid for the first third-to 2/5 of the debate, and again for a little portion about 2/3 of the way into it. She got in a couple of good licks. But by the end, I wanted it to be over to let her out of her — or my — misery.
So how, after all that, can McCain make hay out of this debate? Two reasons. First, gay marriage. Second, judges.
Even though Biden in his follow-up said he does not support gay marriage, Palin smoked him on the exchange. Her answer was just about perfect. Biden seemed SO overly enthusiastic about gay visitation rights, etc., that a lot of middle Americans would, I think, recoil; there’s a difference between benign tolerance and strong support for same-sex couples. He sounded overenthusiastic about the latter, and at one point he actually did say he was talking about rights for couples “in a same sex marriage.” As a pure political judgment here — not to say whether he is right or wrong, but just in terms of political impact — I think he overdid it so much that it will allow McCain’s campaign to bring up the Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama opposed. This isn’t gay-bashing. It should NOT be gay-bashing, because gay-bashing is despicable. But handled soberly, it’s a great issue, and it is the issue that turned out millions upon millions of voters who made the difference for George W. Bush in 2004.
Now, judges. I cannot BELIEVE Biden deliberately brought up the change in his view on what makes a good judge. I can’t believe he actually said ideology should be a factor. Most Americans strongly disagree with that. And if the McCain people have any sense, they will drive a truck through that opening — first, just on the thought of judges imposing ANY ideology at all, which is unpopular. Second, as I written time and time and time again, if the idological or philosophical RESULTS of conservative vs liberal jurisprudence are put before the public, the public overwhelmingly, unambiguously, and with great passion supports conservative results more than liberal ones. Biden made a HUGE mistake in bringing the issue up, and especially in the way he discussed it. If McCain doesn’t exploit the opportunity, he’s a fool.
Final verdict: In terms of who won the immediate debate, Biden by as big a margin as that of Secretariat in the Belmont. But in terms of who is able to do more to make long-term hay (long-term in campaign time, meaning in the next four weeks) from the campaign, the opportunities are there for McCain to do quite well. No one thing in particular that Biden did or said will be tremendously commercial-worthy for Obama’s purposes. Nothing that Palin did or said will provide TV ad fodder that helps Obama drive McCain down further — there were no major “gaffes” to be exploited, even though there were times she looked in general out of her league. But Biden on gay marriage and on judges provided real fodder for McCain to attack, if he does it effectively, soberly, not nastily but still forcefully. We’ll see if the McCain folks recognize their chance.