Pre-VP-Debate Analysis And Advice To Biden [UPDATED and PROMOTED]

Ken AshfordElection 2008Leave a Comment

I’m not one of the Obama supporters who is gleeful that Palin’s performance tonight will be viewed as a trainwreck a la the Couric interviews.

She won’t have a trainwreck.

She will be warm and personable, but tough.  She will go on the offensive, taking opportunities to point out, for example, where Biden and Obama have disagreed on policy.  (Also, she will definitely make reference to Biden’s statement, made during a Democratic primary debate, that Obama was "not ready" to be President).

She will not be strong on specifics, especially as it pertains to her experience.  For people already in the McCain-Palin camp, this will not matter.  For people already in the Obama-Biden camp, this will matter a lot.  For undecideds and leaners, this will matter depending on whether they, as individuals, are more "keyed in" on specifics. [UPDATE:  For some reading on whether a candidate’s "knowledge" matters, read this.  The upshot is that, for undecideds, "knowledge" doesn’t matter]

In other words, Palin will prevail on style; Biden on substance.

Where can Palin go wrong?  Two ways:

(1) By trying to be strong on substance.  It’s not her forte, and (during her gubatorial race) she doesn’t need to be; and

(2) By being too "catty" on her attacks on Biden.  She has, I think, a self-righteous smirk that appears when she gets too "on the attack" and/or too defensive.  If we see a lot of that tonight, she’ll lose points on "style", which is her only advantage.

What should Biden do to "win", assuming that substance alone won’t carry the day?  A few thoughts:

(1)  Be personable.  Biden is personable.  People have forgotten that. 

(2)  Be a regular guy.  Biden is blue-collar, has an interesting back story (his wife and daughter being killed on the eve of his inauguration into Congress, forcing him to raise his boys by himself), and a son who just was deployed to Iraq.  He needs to get that in there because (amazingly) there will be a lot of uncommitted voters who will be examining him closely for the first time.  He cannot escape that he has been "inside the beltway" for many years, but he can blunt some of the "hockey mom" sentiment that Palin will capitalize on.

(3)  Be gracious with Palin.  Many liberal commentators are advising Biden to go for the jugular, to show that Palin simply isn’t ready and experienced.  I don’t think that is necessary, because people who care about that already know that.  In fact, if Palin’s faux pas with Couric becomes a topic of discussion, Biden should even be magnanimous and humble, saying something like, "Hey.  This isn’t easy, being thrust into the public spotlight, and having your every turn of phrase dissected and commented on.  Being the subject of satire.  I don’t know if *I* even have the hang of it. I think Palin is handling it with grace and aplumb.  One of the things you need to handle the job is a sense of humor."

Being gracious with Palin will also have the advantage of making her attacks seem "catty", even if they are not "catty" on their own merits.

(4)  Answer the questions.  The ideal situation would be for Palin to get questions requiring specific answers, and having her give some answer with generalizations and attacks on the Obama-Biden position.  When Biden rebuts, rather than counter Palin’s attacks, he should preface with: "Well, you asked for specifics.  Let me give them to you.  Number one… Number two….."  People will perceive that Biden is a straightshooter, and Palin is not.  Biden doesn’t need to point this out.

(5)  Don’t say you’re more experienced; show it.  In his debate with Obama, McCain played this card wrong.  He said (many times) that Obama was inexperienced.  I think that’s bad debating.  Let the people make that conclusion, without telling them that.  Just talk about what you’ve done.  What you’ve learned from this experience or that experience.  Of course, you can overdo it.  Don’t engage in obvious name-dropping (as McCain did — another mistake) of world leaders you’ve met with just for the sake of naming them.  If they come up naturally, fine.  But don’t force it.

When Palin gives specifics about McCain’s policies (if she were smart, that is her "specifics" card she should play), Biden could rebut with something like "Yes, we tried that in 2003 with the Blahdy-blah bill. What resulted was a catastrophic….".  That shows not only experience, but that McCain-Palin really isn’t a breath of fresh air being brought to Washington.

(6)  Remind viewers what this is about.  At some point, Biden needs to have a drop-in like, "one of use could very well be sitting across the table from Vladimir Putin someday".  That will make people who care about style actually think about substance.


One issue that has arisen these past two days is that the debate moderator, Gwen Ifill, has written a soon-to-be-published book "about Obama" or "favorable to Obama".  That might be a slight mischaracterization of the book.  Amazon describes the book as being about "the impact of Barack Obama‚Äôs stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power", which doesn’t necessarily mean she’s "in the tank" for Obama.

And even if she does have a pro-Obama bent personally, that does not mean she can’t moderate a debate even-handedly.  I mean, in these debates, don’t both candidates get asked the same question?  How could she be "harder" on one candidate?

I think the ifill attacks by the right wing are merely a way to pre-dispose people to the after-debate argument that Palin "lost" because the debate was unfair.  I don’t think that argument will be able to be made (with a straight face), so the "controversy" now is merely a tempest in a teapot.

UPDATE:  For an entirely (rude) take on what Biden should say, see The Rude Pundit

UPDATE:  Politico has a look at Palin’s debate "playbook".  Her stategy (according to the McCain campaign) is to be aggressive.

(1)  Attack Biden’s foreign policy experiences (refering to N. Korea in 2006 as a "paper tiger");

(2)  Throw Biden’s his words back at him (apparently, about raising taxes on the wealthy); and

(3)  Highlight how Biden dissed Obama in the primaries (especially about not being ready to lead). 

I think the first tactic is ill-advised, because it will also remind viewers (and Biden can do this) that Palin has NO foreign policy experience to attack.  And, oh yeah — Biden’s the chair of the Foreign Relations committee.

The second tactic, if it’s about taxes on the wealthy, isn’t going to win the day with Joe Six-Pack in a time of an economic crisis caused my Wall Street muckity-mucks.  Not sure what that is about.

The third tactic is fine and predictable (I predicted it, too), and Biden should have a response prepared.

That said, I think it matters less what Palin does to "attack" Biden; what will matter is the way she does it.  If it looks like they sent her in with a bunch of pre-fab attacks and snark lines, she’s toast.

Biden, it says, is going to take a "prosecutorial, just-the-facts" approach.  That’s what I recommended.  A show of competence.  It will make the "pitbull" into a "poodle, yapping at his heels".  Ooooh, I like that!

Also, I’m promoting this post to the top for the rest of the day.