Well, the debate is over. And Joe Biden won it, though Sarah Palin defied expectations by speaking in complete sentences almost throughout the entire debate.
For the most part, the debate played out as I expected; Biden pulled his punches for the most part, knowing full well that the only way he could lose would be to turn Palin into a sympathetic figure. Palin was big on glittering generalities and short on specifics — we need to “reform education” and “stop Wall-Street greed” and “Maverick!” — but primarily because the format of the debate limited follow-up questions, she didn’t have a deer-in-the-headlights moment, just a few times when she began rambling a bit, and as Jim Henley notes, during those times she sounded most of all like George H.W. Bush talking about a thousand points of light and “message: I care.” A bit disjointed and weird, and nothing really helpul per se, but nothing catastrophic either.
Frankly, there was only one real zinger in the debate, and it wasn’t a zinger in the classic sense. The moment of the debate came after Sarah Palin touted her mom cred:
But it wasn’t just that experience tapped into [sic], it was my connection to the heartland of America. Being a mom, one very concerned about a son in the war, about a special needs child, about kids heading off to college, how are we going to pay those tuition bills? About times and Todd and our marriage in our past where we didn’t have health insurance and we know what other Americans are going through as they sit around the kitchen table and try to figure out how are they going to pay out-of-pocket for health care? We’ve been there also so that connection was important.
Biden responded from the heart:
Look, I understand what it’s like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it’s like as a parent to wonder what it’s like if your kid’s going to make it.
I understand what it’s like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says, “I’ve got to leave, champ, because there’s no jobs here. I got to head down to Wilmington. And when we get enough money, honey, we’ll bring you down.”
I understand what it’s like. I’m much better off than almost all Americans now. I get a good salary with the United States Senate. I live in a beautiful house that’s my total investment that I have. So I — I am much better off now.
But the notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand.
I understand, as well as, with all due respect, the governor or anybody else, what it’s like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They’re looking for help. They’re looking for help. They’re not looking for more of the same.
It was a devastating moment, because it was true. At age 29, just after the unbelievable professional triumph of being elected to the Senate, Biden went through what any parent would readily identify as the most awful experience possible, losing his daughter and wife in a car accident, having his two sons hospitalized from the same accident. He was sworn in at a hospital in Delaware, and he seriously considered resigning his Senate seat, and was convinced to stay by then-Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr., DFL-Minn., who assured Biden that his colleagues would help him with his loss.
Biden choked up in that moment, as I think one would forever. He wasn’t grandstanding, and he wasn’t attacking Palin, he was simply making a point: that dads, too, know about household fears. That just as Palin is not disqualified from talking about the statehouse just because she’s a woman, Biden is not disqualified from talking about his home life just because he’s a man. It was, ironically, the most feminist moment of the debate.
Who won the debate? Well, early returns suggest Biden did, and I think that’s probably true. Palin didn’t hurt the McCain campaign, and maybe helped rehabilitate her chances for 2012, but at this point, with the clock ticking, the McCain campaign can’t simply get through the day unmolested. They need to start making up ground. I doubt this debate will move the needle much. But if it does, it will be primarily because Biden was able to land some sharp jabs at McCain without coming across as arrogant — indeed, while coming across as very, very human.