Palin survives to rewrite the rules of political debates

Sarah Palin didn't crash and burn in the vice-presidential candidates debate, but then she didn't actually debate, opting instead for a recital of pre-scripted lines irrespective of the questions asked.

Governor Sarah Palin lives. She turned up to the Vice Presidential debate and did not spontaneously combust; nor was she forced to call for a life-line. Her best asset was the unbelievably low expectations that preceded her performance.  She carried out the stop-loss that was required to stem the bleeding of her half of the McCain-Palin ticket. But in doing so, she has redefined the political debate.

Palin came to the rostrum with a game plan that she stuck to come hell or high water. That plan was to ignore the questions, deliver rhetoric instead of specifics and recite what had been drilled into her at debate boot-camp on one of McCain's ranches over the last few days. At least we now know the true meaning behind "drill baby drill".

The inadequate debate format was powerless to address Palin's plan, and instead allowed her to claw back some admiration from her Republican supporters for being fresh and gutsy and innovative. They didn't care that she didn't, wouldn't or couldn't answer pesky questions. They were too busy being relieved that she did not crash and burn. At times like this I always like to imagine the boot on the other foot. What outrage!

That said, Joe Biden also had a game plan, which was to avoid attacking his opponent - despite being mocked - and to concentrate on McCain. In contrast to her almost cartoonish happy-hamming it up, Biden looked boring - until foreign policy at least, when he'd had the McCain-Palin version of 'maverick' up to the eyeballs.

Don't get me wrong, Palin's winking at the crowd, winking at the camera, and relentlessly displaying an incapacity to pronounce the 'ing' on the end of words can be endearing in a 'huntin' shootin' an' fishin'' kinda way, but the job she is applying for is to be VP, and possibly President (heartbeat away an' all that). Sometimes that calls for an ability to address, in a delivery close to that used by adults, an issue that is not of your own choosing. What we got was a strange mish-mash of drummed-in recital and a desperate attempt to let Sarah be Sarah.

Palin's minders had decided the only way to explain the embarrassing disasters of her interviews with Gibson and Couric was to attack the media. That's hardly a new political strategy. What was new was that Palin and co. extended their sites to incorporate the debate moderator. Palin declared she might not answer the questions the way the moderator or Biden wanted, but that was their tough luck. "I'm gunna talk straight to the American people".

It was a novel approach that is likely to ring some alarm bells with not only the United States Debate Commission responsible for all presidential election debates, but also news organisations which, as in New Zealand and Canada (which is also in the midst of an election campaign) are in full controversial debate fever. In the latter two countries the argument is over the number of party leaders to be accommodated in the leaders' debates. In America, rules may have to be rewritten to force the candidates to actually address the topics being discussed at the time they are mooted.

It is questionable how much actual debating ever really goes on with election campaign debates. Memorable lines are few and far between. Palin has now challenged that to the hilt; technically she got away with it. Only a couple of times did moderator Gwen Ifill pull her up ignoring the questions, but even then Palin rode right on through with a "doggonne it". Her chosen personna was the cutesy "Washington outsider" who just doesn't understand "how you guys do things", except that ya'll tryin' to lose the war in "eye-rak".

It took some time for Biden to get sick of the tactic, but eventually he did. While Palin failed in the other McCain campaign strategy, which was to force Biden to lose his rag, the Democrat finally had enough of being the only kid playing by the rules. He began to snidely point out that the questions were not being answered. In so doing he risked sounding like he was telling the teacher, but at least he was adding some protocol to a debate deemed worthy enough to interrupt primetime telly. What Palintology brought to the rostrum was a bizarre disconnect that meant she and Biden appeared to be yakking away in their own parallel universes.

When it was nearly all over, Palin grinned her folksy grin and announed she "liked being able to answer these tough questions without the filter of the mainstream's been good to be able to talk directly to the American people".  Hmm.  Here's the quandry. Ifill did not ask any tough 'gotcha' questions, and still, no matter what the topic, Palin seemed to have to ignore the question, ask herself a pre-rehearsed a question, answer it, and segue awarkardly back to talkin' about energy.

So, asking myself a question, why does it all matter whether Palin can answer a question or has the smarts to be 2nd in command of the United States? It matters a great deal, if for no other reason than the misery the rest of the world has endured from the melt-down in the world's largest economy. In four months time Palin could be in one of the hot seats. Her triumph over debate format does not substitute for an inability to offer any policy alternatives to the current administration.

If there is one thing that the American people (why do US politicians never refer to them as Americans?) take away from debate Palin-style is recognition that she could not offer one difference, not even a tiny morsel of a difference, between her ticket and the administration she hopes to be taking over from. Unless you have forgotten, Bush belongs to the same party as McCain-Pailn, which may account for Palin's derision at the Obama-Biden camp for "always wantin' to look back". There are some things in life that none of us want to be reminded of, and Bush is surely that for his own side. Perhaps Palin sees a little too much of herself in 'W'. After all, it was Bush who declared "more and more of our imports come from overseas", which is not a heck of a long way from Palin's clanger to Couric, that "our next door neighbours are foreign countries".

Political debates are like car races, in that while we may well watch to elicit some critical element of policy, (yeah right) we really want to see the crashes. On the smiling, winking face of it, Palin did avoid a crash, and she does not have to front for any other mainstream, filtering media-types before the election. Without getting too precious about the role of the fourth estate in democracies, that's akin to saying she does not have to answer to the citizens of the country she calls the greatest democracy in the world. This from a woman who declared that she would like to increase the constitutional powers of the VP when she gets to the White House. That is more than a worry. That is Cheney on speed.

As Thomas Jefferson was credited with saying, "the government you elect is the government you deserve". Or you could try for size H.L Menken's "people deserve the government they get and they deserve to get it good and hard". Apparently moose-huntin's good an' hard. Wasilla-reality is also supposedly good an' hard, and John McCain's the only candidate who "knows how to win a war...he's been there". Could McCain's minders please tell Palin thanks, but no thanks for the war lesson? They might also quietly whisper that America lost the war he was in, at the cost of over 50,000 lives.

So I suppose debates are worth it after all. America can't say it hasn't been warned.