2008 US Election, Neill Harvey-Smith

Biden wins vice presidential debate: Harvey-Smith

Judge: Neill Harvey-Smith
Winner: Biden
Scores: Biden 84 | Palin 72

Inauthentic is the word that sums up Sarah Palin’s performance in the VP debate.

At the start and towards the end of the debate, Palin tried to paint herself as an ordinary American, talking about the need for families to take personal responsibility for avoiding debt and describing how it feels to struggle. She sounded natural and relaxed. As soon as the debate shifted to healthcare, she made a big deal of talking about legislative detail, no doubt to respond to press criticism. On foreign policy, her voice broke, her speech patterns altered and she looked down as if relying heavily on notes. The jumps were sudden and felt uneasy, unlike George Bush, to whom she has been compared, but whose effective folksy approach to communication was consistent whatever his subject matter.

Throughout, explicitly even, she danced away from questions, defensively talking up her own record in Alaska. As a self-styled Washington outsider, it was jarring that her command of detail only stretched to her opponents’ voting record. On economic policy, foreign policy and the role of the Vice-President, Joe Biden was strong and likeable, gave sharper analysis of the problems and a clearer vision of the way forward.

Biden’s answers were firm and decisive, often starting with “absolutely” and being consistently emphatic on his main points. This clarity in framing answers helped him score points on minor spats along the way: redistribution versus fairness on tax and his quip, on climate change, that if you don’t understand the cause, you can’t solve the problem.

Biden also outfoxed Palin on other issues. Palin told us she had taken on the oil companies in Alaska. Biden praised her windfall tax, supported her and twisted it to ask why McCain was opposed to her approach. On gay marriage, the Democrat put the Republican on the defensive, and managed to secure her grudging agreement that there was nothing between them on the question as phrased.

On foreign policy, Biden did much better than Obama had a few days earlier. He highlighted the failures of recent years, the continuity of McCain’s policies and sounded in command of his subject matter. Palin was unable to respond to the unexpected, such as Biden’s claim that the military believed an Iraq-style surge would fail in Afghanistan.  

Perhaps surprisingly, we learned a lot more about the colour of Biden’s life than Palin’s. She was happy to brand herself as the “hockey mom” of demographic cliches, whereas we learned a lot that sounded real and specific about his difficult and sometimes tragic family circumstances, the telling of which brought tears to his eyes. 

The key battle in America is whether McCain or Obama represent change. Joe Biden did an excellent job of linking recent failures in economic and foreign policy to John McCain and mapping out specific alternatives. Sarah Palin was on the defensive and looked out of her depth.


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