Campaigns/Elections

Shoeless Joe Biden and the Snowbilly Hockey Mom

A cringe-inducing night of veep populism

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So the media narrative has shifted. Last night's debate wasn't the colossal disaster for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that many pundits had predicted and many Republicans feared. As the McCain campaign privately acknowledged, her confused, cringe-inducing performance with Katie Couric opened a deep wound, but after a 90-minute blitzkrieg of aw-shucks folksiness, the well-scripted cauterization began. It is, however, a stretch to conclude that she recovered in any appreciable way—she advanced the line slightly, but this was no Battle of the Bulge breakout.

Like most pundits, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for The Politico, set a low bar for success, offering Palin back-handed praise: "She smiled. She faced the camera. She was warm. She was human. Gosh and golly, she even dropped a bunch of g's." And, like a chipper Waffle House waitress, she winked at us (repeatedly), called us "hon," refilled our coffee, and straight-talked about issues she didn't entirely understand.

You know, I want to like Palin, if just to irritate those who feign apoplexy at the very mention of her name. But it seems clear that, like most hockey moms, she has proven an extremely weak extemporaneous debater, frequently consulting her index cards and resorting to platitudes when substance proved elusive. In the American political milieu, this isn't necessarily a handicap, provided you have been sufficiently media-trained or spent five days in debate boot camp with Randy Scheunemann. But who doubts that in a Prime Minister's Questions-type format—an import that Sen. McCain has long advocated—Palin would be cut to ribbons?

With media attention directed at Palin's pronunciation of "nu-cu-ler" and her failure to address a number of moderator Gwen Ifill's questions head-on, it's easy to see how this debate could work heavily in favor of Sen. Joe Biden's (D-Del.). But it wasn't his "more substantive" answers that tipped the balance—his responses were frequently vapid, evasive, and confused. It's the fact that, post-Couric, hardly anyone was concerned with the substance of such arguments. What mattered was the style with which they were presented. Biden was Biden. It was Palin the underdog rookie we should all be interested in.

The Atlantic's Clive Crook makes the rather straightforward argument that Biden was on a short leash, tempering his responses, refusing to go for the jugular, and was instead studiously self-effacing, chuckling at some of Palin's more pointed digs. As Crook argues, this was probably a winning strategy. But this line of argument, along with the obsessive focus on "freeing" Palin from constraints imposed by the campaign, also has the added benefit of turning the focus away from many of Biden's clunky answers.

For instance, attempting to stanch the surge-as-success narrative, Biden argued that "our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principle in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan," despite Obama's previous calls for a surge of troops into that country to fight al Qaeda. (Unsurprisingly, Biden did pirouettes around his vote authorizing the president to wage the Iraq War.) The pie-in-the-sky Biden plan, he said, would include building schools on the Pakistan border and "establishing" a stable government in Islamabad.

Palin, it was noted repeatedly today, mistook the Civil War general who lead the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, for the general in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, David McKiernan. But it will only be specialists that pay attention to Biden's bizarre—and more damaging—claim that the United States and France "kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon," only to see the group return and join the government. Even if he meant Syria, which is the most charitable reading of his argument, this would be at odds with reality, as most any Lebanese citizen who suffered at the hands of Hezbollah could attest.

There is, after all, an easy solution to the situation in Lebanon, said Biden: "I said and Barack said, 'Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know—if you don't, Hezbollah will control it.'" It is unclear if either Biden or Obama ever actually suggested such a mad scheme—let's hope they didn't—but for those voters seeing the Obama campaign as an alternative to the muscular foreign policy of the past eight years, one wonders if they're alarmed at the thought of potentially employing NATO (!) forces to occupy a powder keg like Lebanon.

And while it is easy (and entertaining) to poke fun at Palin's "I've only been at this, like, five weeks," working-mom routine, let's not forget that Biden too employs a particularly noxious form of populism. It's worth reminding debate viewers that Scranton is not in Delaware, and that the senator is more likely to be found at Morton's than at "Katie's restaurant," a greasy spoon referenced during last night's debate—and which, according to his hometown paper, closed in the 1980s. In one of his many pro-regulation, pro-big government paeans, Biden blustered that "they" don't call it "wealth redistribution in my neighborhood." Of course, in his hardscrabble yet hyper-bourgeois neighborhood of Greenville, Delaware, he owns a $2.5 million waterfront estate, according to the News-Journal.

As a journalist comrade commented during the debate, Biden's working-class shtick seemed lifted from a Billy Joel lyric sheet—Allentown as Scranton-town—or a particularly unconvincing Bruce Springsteen B-side. So let's all agree that Palin's "maverick hockey mom" routine is growing as unappealing as Gump Worsley's scarred face, that her attacks on "greedy capitalists" and her demand that teachers require even higher salaries are absurd, and that her grasp of economics is tenuous at best.

But as the Palin pile-on continues (something the McCain campaign could have prevented by making her more accessible) let's not forget to pay attention to "Shoeless Joe Biden," the scrappy millionaire from Scranton, who will send troops to Lebanon and build Montessori schools in Waziristan.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.