That was Peggy Noonan’s assessment of Sarah Palin’s performance in last night’s debate. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I am a registered Republican and have been for 24 years. That said, I wondered what debate Ms. Noonan was watching. It wasn’t the one I saw.
Expectations were low for Governor Palin, so much so that McCain and his surrogates tried to make an issue of Gwen Ifill’s alleged “impartiality” problem. If she had performed poorly, as she had in a few interviews recently, they could just blame it on a mean and biased moderator. Against that backdrop, my wife and I settled in to watch the debate.
My wife, I have to say, is not a partisan or ideological voter, though in the past she was a one-issue voter: if you were opposed to abortion, you had her vote. But realistically, the abortion debate was won a long time ago, and now we’re just arguing about how much it can be regulated. But on the surface, my wife is just the kind of voter Palin should be attracting.
“If she says ‘maverick’ again, I’m going to throw up,” my wife said before the debate started. “McCain must have said it fifteen times in the last debate.” We counted seven times when Ms. Palin referred herself and McCain as mavericks. “Oh, brother,” my wife said, rolling her eyes.
That was just the beginning: her attempts to be folksy and down-home fell flat with my wife. “You betcha,” “darn right,” and a couple of weird winks all elicited groans from my wife.
But she surprised both of us by staying mostly “on message” and scoring a few points against Obama and Biden. When Biden denied that Obama had ever said that he would meet with foreign dictators without preconditions, my wife asked me, “Did Obama really say that?” Yes, he did. But her responses often seemed canned, and when asked questions she was unprepared for, Palin ignored the questions and went back to the stump speech talking points.
Biden, on the other hand, was sure with his facts for the most part and rightly went after McCain instead of Palin. He effectively blasted Republican positions without coming across as “mean” or “condescending.” Toward the end of the debate, he brilliantly listed the ways in which McCain is no maverick. I suspect that’s what most voters will take away from the debate: Biden’s effective attacks on McCain’s position. My wife certainly came out of the debate with more appreciation of who Joe Biden is and what he stands for. And she liked what she saw.
There weren’t any knockouts, and Palin did better than expected (how could she not have exceeded expectations?). But in the end, Biden was far more in control. He clearly knew his stuff and came across well. I don’t think Palin’s performance did anything to change the dynamics of the campaign. If my wife is any judge, Biden won the debate. Somehow, I trust her judgment better than Peggy Noonan’s.