The much-anticipated debate between vice presidential candidates Thursday night provided a stark contrast. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the running mate for Sen. Barack Obama, is well prepared to be vice president. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the running mate for Sen. John McCain, clearly is not prepared. This is the rare election where voters should give serious consideration to the bottom of the ticket before casting their ballots for president.
Biden demonstrated a strong command of economic issues, health care and foreign policy. He cited specifics and offered unusually sharp responses, in contrast to his reputation for rambling answers. He made a coherent case against the Bush administration for its handling of the economy and the war in Iraq, and he effectively linked McCain's proposals to the unpopular incumbent.
Palin often talked in circles. In one sentence, she declared "darn right it was the predator lenders'' who have caused the economic crisis. Then she talked about the need for more regulatory oversight. Then she talked about the need for people to be responsible and avoid getting into debt.
At other points, she was absolutely incoherent. She lost herself in a rambling response about nuclear weapons. She was inarticulate at best about the causes of global warming — probably because she previously has questioned whether humans have contributed to the problem. Responded Biden: "I think it is man-made. … If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution.''
Here is the extent of Palin's explanation of energy policy. When Biden referred to Republican chants of "drill! drill! drill!'', Palin corrected him. "The chant is, 'drill, baby, drill,' '' she said.
Her message on the Iraq war was similarly simplistic. She said it would be a "travesty if we quit now in Iraq'' — which no one advocates. And Obama's call for a gradual withdrawal of troops, she said, is waving a white flag of surrender. Such responses lack depth or a grasp of reality.
Palin was clear on at least one point, and the Obama campaign will wrap it around McCain. In a discussion in which Biden described Obama's plan to keep tax cuts for the middle class but not for wealthier Americans, Palin suggested she was not on board with such a "redistribution of wealth.'' That was an easy shot for Biden, who noted that helping middle class families in Scranton, Pa., and other places send their children to college is not a redistribution of wealth.
Palin often chided Biden for looking backward instead of forward. No wonder, since she conceded the Bush administration has made "huge blunders'' on Iraq and the economy. "We're gonna forge ahead,'' she said. The problem, of course, is that McCain's vision on tax cuts, health care and the ongoing war in Iraq is virtually identical to Bush's. That makes it harder to build on McCain's reputation as a maverick, which Palin repeated as often as she could.
Biden was the clear winner of the only debate between the candidates for vice president. But the night was really about Palin, who on Monday will visit Clearwater. She proved to be disarmingly charming. When she's not fumbling for specifics or repeating generalities about fighting big government, opposing taxes and embracing patriotism, her folksy cadence sounds warm and approachable. It's clear why she connects with many Republicans eager to hear from someone who sounds familiar and informal.
But the Alaska governor said nothing to reassure Americans she is prepared to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.