Friday, October 3, 2008


Sarah Palin, the Winner by a Wink
Team Obama tries to understand her performance.
By Byron York
St. Louis — In the hours before Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden took the stage here at Washington University, Barack Obama’s top advisers went out of their way to talk up Palin’s debating skills. “I expect that Gov. Palin is going to be very effective tonight,” chief strategist David Axelrod told reporters. “She’s been working hard at this.” David Plouffe, the campaign manager, upped the ante when he called Palin “one of the best debaters in American politics.” Maybe they were just trying to raise expectations, set about a millimeter off the ground after Palin’s interview with CBS’s Katie Couric. Maybe they really thought Palin would do well. In any event, their statements before the debate allowed them to stride into the Spin Room after the session and say, See? — I told you she was good.
“Everybody thinks I was joking about it,” Axelrod said after the debate ended. “I was not joking about it. Sarah Palin is a good performer.”No argument there. Despite a few weak moments, Palin delivered a strong and sure performance Thursday night. After enduring weeks of derision, Palin didn’t just beat the low expectations for her performance; she ran all over them.But how? Superior debating ability? Commanding logic? A winning manner? No, not at all. If you listened to Team Obama after the debate late Thursday, you learned Palin accomplished her impressive performance by . . . winking.“Don’t sell the American people short,” Axelrod told reporters after the debate. “I’m sure they liked Gov. Palin, but they need more than a wink and a smile.” Axelrod also said Biden gave people hope, “rather than offering them a wink and a smile.” And he added that, “The American people are asking for more — they want more than a wink and a nod and a smile.”A few minutes later, I talked to Bob Barnett, the Washington lawyer who has played key roles in past Democratic debate preparation and who this time represented the Obama campaign in negotiating ground rules between the two candidates. Barnett knows how to watch and evaluate a debate, so I asked him to critique Palin’s performance. “She played her tapes,” Barnett said, meaning that Palin repeated pre-planned statements. “She came in with ten things to say and six winks to perform, and she did them.”“Six winks?”“Yeah. Did you see? Six. I counted six.”“You were watching closely.”“Well, I was counting.”It’s probably safe to say that this was the first national debate in which one side explained that the other had done its best work by winking. By a few hours after the debate, the great wink issue had driven some commentators on the Left nearly to distraction. “The next person that winks at me, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to take it after tonight,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.Representatives of the McCain campaign had a different explanation for Palin’s performance. “Smart, tough, and together,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key member of the McCain Posse. “I thought she understood where the country would go and articulated how the country would be different with McCain-Palin vs. Obama-Biden, and she had a personable nature that said, ‘I am different and new to Washington.’“I asked Graham whether the Palin on stage seemed different from the Palin of those CBS and ABC interviews. “Yeah,” he said. “I think she just hit her stride. I think over 90 minutes you can understand who the person is . . . she had a level of confidence and likeability, for lack of a better word, that shone tonight that you’ll never see in a 15-second sound bite.”Graham’s words brought up the complaint, going around in Republican circles, that the McCain campaign has mishandled Palin, keeping her under wraps except for those high-profile, old-fashioned broadcast network interviews. Insiders concede that there was something wrong in Camp Palin — a problem that was fixed, at least somewhat, by the intervention of top campaign officials as debate prep got underway. Now, everyone has signed on to the idea of letting Palin be Palin. “I think we ought to use her more,” Graham said. “I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was not to showcase her to the people.”Well, she is showcased now. From the very beginning, Palin came out strong in a way that overshadowed Biden. For example, if it is vitally important in this campaign for a candidate to convey the impression that he or she understands a typical family’s economic anxieties — well, Palin passed the test easily. She was solid throughout on taxes, and even though she pressed too hard on the issue of predatory lending, she also acknowledged the role that bad personal decisions have played in today’s financial mess. “Let’s do what our parents told us before we probably even got that first credit card,” Palin said. “Don’t live outside of our means.”For the first time in any extensive way, Palin also stressed her own experience “as a mayor and business owner and oil-and-gas regulator and then as a governor.” She talked at some length about energy, both her own record and that of Obama and Biden, and she spoke with real authority. Even when the subject was Darfur, she mentioned something she had done in Alaska.On foreign policy in general, Palin showed vast improvement over her performance in the network interviews. But it’s not her strong suit — can you name a governor other than Reagan who has been elected president for whom foreign policy was a strong suit? — and she had less command of the issues than did Biden. On the other hand, Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used his long experience to make some points that were simply preposterous. For example, he continued to deny that Barack Obama had ever pledged to meet with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. “This is simply not true about Barack Obama,” Biden said, pointing out that Ahmadinejad “does not control the security apparatus” in Iran. Just for the record, in a Democratic debate on July 23, 2007, Obama was asked whether he would be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Obama answered, “I would.” Any reasonable reading of that would say that Obama pledged to meet the leader of Iran — be it Ahmadinejad or someone else — without precondition. On another occasion, Obama said it specifically with reference to Ahmadinejad. So score some points for Palin even in her weak area. On the other hand, Palin delivered some answers that left viewers scratching their heads. On climate change, she said:
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, what I want to argue is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?
It was one of those answers that, if you were sympathetic to Palin, you said, “I understand what she means.” If you were unsympathetic to Palin, you said it was gibberish. Palin should also probably not have wandered into the question, explored by Dick Cheney and few others, of whether the vice president has the authority to play a greater role in the Senate than previously thought. But if you were looking for Palin to stumble — and Democrats wouldn’t have minded that one bit, despite all their pre-show praise of Palin’s debating skills — you just didn’t see it onstage Thursday night. Palin emerged from a couple of weeks of misguided Team McCain handling with her Palin-ness intact, and she showed it onstage when it counted.And that, for a lot of Republicans, was a deeply satisfying turn of events. “One of the reasons I feel so good for her, just as a human being,” said former Sen. Fred Thompson, “is I have never seen anybody undergo the ridicule, the slanders and the lies, and the blogosphere and what they’re doing, and breaking into her private e-mail, rumors and things about her, and now, most recently, belittling her, taking little snippets of interviews and laughing at her and satirizing her. Those people ought to be ashamed of themselves, if they’re capable of shame, because they’ve proven that what they were doing does not represent who she was and who she is. Thank goodness, just as she said, that this was an unfiltered event for an hour and a half. She could stand toe-to-toe with Joe Biden, who’s been around for all these many, many years, and basically take him to the woodshed.”—
Byron York, NATIONAL REVIEW’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time

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