There are some moments when members of a political movement come together as one, sharing the same thoughts, feeling the same emotions, breathing the same shallow breaths. One of those occasions occurred Thursday night, when Republicans around the country crouched nervously behind their sofas, glimpsed out tentatively at their flat screens and gripped tightly upon their beverages as Gov. Sarah Palin walked onto the debate platform at Washington University.
There she was, resplendent in black, striding out like a power walker and greeting Joe Biden like an assertive salesman, first-naming him off the bat.
Just as the mid-century psychologist Abraham Maslow predicted, Republicans watching the debate had a hierarchy of needs. First, they had a need for survival. Was this woman capable of completing an extemporaneous paragraph – collection of sentences with subjects, verbs, objects and, if possible, a meaning?
Met main test
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In her first answers, it was clear that she would meet the test. She spoke with that calm, measured poise that marked her convention speech, not the panicked meanderings of her subsequent interviews.
When nervous, Palin has a tendency to over-enunciate words like a graduate of the George W. Bush School of Oratory, but Thursday night she spoke like a normal person. It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona – the straight-talking mom from regular America – and it was clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer and hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, Main Streeters, “you betchas” and “darn rights.”
With a bemused smile and a never-ending flow of words, she laid out the essential logic for her place on the ticket, the fearless neighbor for the heartland bemused by the idiocies of Washington. Her perpetual smile served as foil to Biden's exasperated seriousness.
Where was this woman during her interview with Katie Couric?
Their primal need for political survival apparently having been satisfied, her supporters then looked for her to supply social needs. Could she project a winning personality? Could she connect with voters? To be more precise, what type of inexperience would she project?
It was a given that Palin would project inexperience Thursday night, but like cholesterol, there are two varieties. There is the endearing kind, political inexperience. As she has demonstrated recently, Palin does not know how to dodge a question, or bluff her way through a subject she knows nothing about. This is an endearing trait in a world of professional filibusterers.
Then there is governmental inexperience, the black hole she fell into with Couric when her ignorance of a subject seemed bottomless.
On Thursday night, Palin took her inexperience and made a mansion out of it. From her first “Nice to meet you. May I call you Joe?” she made it abundantly, unstoppably and relentlessly clear that she was not of Washington, did not admire Washington and knew little about Washington. She ran not only against Washington, but the whole East Coast, just to be safe.
About 20 minutes in, Republican knuckles all across America unwhitened. Cortisol levels dropped. One could practically hear fingernails being pried loose from the sides of Coors Lite cans. Far from being the next star of a Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away” commercial and sinking McCain into oblivion, Palin was surpassing all expectations.
The next challenge became accomplishing something positive. On this front, Palin certainly broke no new ground, but she toured the landscape of McCain policy positions with surprising fluency. Like the last debate, this one was surprisingly wonky, like a lifetime subscription to Congressional Quarterly. Palin certainly never put Biden off his guard or on the defensive, but neither did Biden put her on the defensive.
There was scarcely a moment of awkward floundering. She was surprisingly forceful on the subject of Iran (pronouncing Ahmadinejad better than her running mate) though she stepped over the line in claming that Democrats sought to raise “the white flag of surrender.”
Now it should be said, especially of those of you who took frequent fridge breaks, that there was another participant in this debate. Joe Biden was smart, fluid and relentless. But surprisingly, there were some moments when he was the one who seemed over-coached – hammering debating point after debating point, but not pausing to display much of the Biden personality – at least until the final moving testimony about his family.
Established debate parity
Still, this debate was about Sarah Palin. She was half of a substantive, energetic debate that gave voters a substantive and direct look at two competing philosophies. She established debating parity with Joe Biden, at the very least.
By the end of the debate, most Republicans were not crouching behind the couch, but, I suspect, standing upon it. John McCain still faces an uphill fight, but nobody could have expected a performance as polished as the one he got from his running mate.