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Vice presidential debate exonerated Ifill, but let candidates avoid an actual debate



At the end of tonight's 90-minute vice presidential debate, a couple of things were clear:Vpdebate

All the Sturm und Drang about moderator Gwen Ifill's supposed conflict of interest was unfounded, as the PBS host presented an evening of well-balanced questions. The National Association of Black Journalists congratulated Ifill on her work here.

But the evenhandedness of the questions and debate format also made for an event that wasn't much of a debate. Both Palin and Biden were able to ignore criticisms and tough questions they preferred not to answer, with little chiding from the moderator.

Palin set the tone early, telling Biden and Ifill "I may not answer the questions the way that either you (Biden) or the moderator wants to hear." But, governor, isn't that the point of a debate? To answer the question asked?

No matter. For much of the debate, Palin didn't directly answer the questions she was asked, including queries about what promises she might have to forgo, given the country's economic state, or the question of whether she accepts Dick Cheney's concept of the vice president's office as both part of the legislature and executive branch.

Biden ignored serious criticisms of himself and Obama, including Palin's note that Obama was wrong about the potential for the surge's success in Iraq and instances when the two of them disagreed. Where he scored was in attacking John McCain instead of Palin, allowing him to score political points without looking like a bully. And he offered the kind of policy detail Palin couldn't approach, coming closer to answering the questions Ifill actually asked on most occasions.

Palin's preferred tactic was to throw a blizzard of catchphrases and homespun attitude at questions she's uncomfortable answering, chiding Biden for his criticism of the Bush administration with a cheery "doggone it, let's just look ahead." Unfortunately, Palin didn't do much to detail what that future might look like beyond the hazy goals of victory in Iraq, lower taxes and freedom in America.

Palin also said she supported equal partnership rights for gay couples -- a statement I'll bet she modifies by midday tomorrow. Biden had to constantly stop himself from offering too much detail in answers. His simple points were sometimes blunted by a little too much talk, in an age when the barest hint of complexity can make a voter's eyes glaze over.

But one benefit Palin enjoyed from the slow dribble of awful interviews with Katie Couric preceding this debate was the gift of low expectations. On NBC, where I saw a supposed Democrat, Geraldine Ferraro, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan and a Republican governor praise Palin's performance, the fact that she didn't make a major gaffe earned her the winner's cup.

"I think the Democrats are glad there is only one vice presidential debate," said NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, summing up the prevailing sentiment. I had to wonder about pundits who would so readily embrace a candidate who offered so little specifics and told the moderator early on she might not answer her questions.

At a time when the country needs very specific answers, why aren't pundits demanding political candidates provide them?


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:52pm]


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