James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Vice presidential debate strategies for Biden and Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 27, 2008

During the past week, Joe Biden managed to demonstrate that, whatever foreign policy credentials he may have, his apparent knowledge about radio, television and the Great Depression would cause him serious problems if he were in the mass media history class that I teach. 

On the other hand, Sarah Palin’s inability to answer even straightforward (and, one would presume, expected) questions, coupled with her apparent and unexpected insecurity, has even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker calling on her to step aside for the good of the Republican Party. The Democratic line from today that she is “a terrific debater” seems to me a clear attempt to counter the ankle-level expectations created by Palin herself.

So here’s my recommended debate strategy for both candidates: Try to let your opponent do most of the talking. On Thursday night the best defense may prove to be a look of stunned amazement while your opponent rambles on. Of course my strategy might be much tougher to follow for the loquacious Biden than for the not-ready-for-prime-time Palin (whom the GOP apparently wouldn’t even trust to speak after the presidential debate, while Biden has appeared seemingly everywhere):

Oh, and parents–You may want to keep your kids away from the TV during Thursday’s debate. Chances are they already lack much knowledge about either history or the electoral process; you don’t want them sliding further.

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11 Responses to “Vice presidential debate strategies for Biden and Palin”

  1. SteveJJ said

    I wonder what it feels like to have your balls handed to you in a paper sack? I guess we will find out next Thursday.

  2. James McPherson said

    Thanks for the comment, I guess, even if I have no idea what it means. But I guess we know your answer to the question, “Paper or plastic?”

  3. Mike Ingram said

    If the debate moderator leaves this one unchecked I could see Biden rambling for 80 minutes, and Palin getting a few minutes of stock one liners in. My hope is that Sarah comes better prepared and can answer coherently in whole paragraphs. She’s looked bad in the first interviews. Biden always talks on and on and on. Will the moderator stop him from consuming all the oxygen in the room?

  4. endithinks said

    The debate is a series of short sections where the candidates do not get to address each other. It will be very controlled. I think it will be entertaining, but it will not change anyone’s minds. If someone is a supporter of Palin they will continue to be. We can see this in the fact that her popularity ratings (although slipping fast) still continue to be higher than her unfavorable ratings even after the disastrous interview with Couric.

    I think that McCain’s campaign has crushed her spirit. I think they squeezed out every ounce of confidence from her by hiding her from the media. I actually feel sorry for her. Did you watch her “chats” with those world leaders? She was talking to the president of Afghanistan about his young son. If I had the president of Afghanistan in a room I would be peppering him with questions about how America can help him, how he can assure us of the efforts they are taking ect ect.

    I think that she is in over her head and the debate won’t change that. If she can answer the questions using canned answers some people will say she is ready. I do feel sorry for her and I think she bit off more than she can chew.

  5. James McPherson said

    I think it might well be interesting, and I could see either candidate making serious blunders–but I also agree that it probably won’t make much difference. VP candidates almost never do, and the two guys at the top of the ticket have enough pluses and minuses to justify voting for or against them.

    Interestingly, Tina Fey will be playing Palin on SNL again tonight. As tightly scripted and hidden away as Palin as been, that means that in the past couple of weeks most of us will have seen more of Fey as Palin than we’ve seen of Palin as Palin.

  6. Rich Strauch said

    Given the direction things have taken over the last two weeks, with the increased focus (finally) on the top of the ticket, Thursday night will likely be little more than a side show. In fact, I suspect that lots of folks will tune in the way they tune into a car race — to see the first wreck.

    The VP debate is highly (and by highly, I mean stratospheric) unlikely to be a game-changer. The person who needs the game-changer right now is McCain, and unless Sarah Palin somehow morphs into an exceptionally articulate, deep-thinking candidate (and Biden suggests that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was carried live on CNN), it’s not going to happen.

    If, on the other hand, the debate makes abundantly clear that Palin is truly Out Of Her League, it will serve only to encourage the continued drift of the poll numbers in Obama’s direction. However, I don’t think we are likely to see a catostrophic performance on Palin’s part either — the McCain campaign knows too much is at stake, and you can bet they are using every available minute to prep her to at least “do no harm” on Thursday.

  7. The elitist wing of the conservative movement has always been wary of us libertarians coming into the GOP. Sarah Palin is one of the top elected libertarian Republicans in the country, (along with Idaho’s Gov. Butch Otter, and Cong. Jeff Flake of AZ).

    Of course, she’s going to make some conservatives nervous.

    They are wary of her libertarian cultural views. This is the woman, after all, who famously fought back against social conservatives in Wasilla who wanted to run all of the bars and taverns out of town.

    They even started a whisper campaign in Alaska during the 2006 primaries that Sarah wasn’t really a Republican, but rather a “closet libertarian.” She had attended a couple local Libertarian Party meetings seeking their support.

    But what she loses from the social conservatives, she gains 10 times over in libertarian votes.

    Figure, Libertarian Bob Barr was polling 6% nationwide in mid-summer. As high as 10% in New Hampshire. And post-Palin he’s now down to 1%.

    Ever since Goldwater the eastern establishment Republicans have distrusted Western cowboy individualists in the GOP.

    With Sarah Palin, the libertarian wing of the GOP has finally arrived. Of course, that’s going to make some other Republicans nervous.

    Get over it Conservatives, THE LIBERTARIANS HAVE ARRIVED!!

  8. [...] night’s debate could be tricky, and I’ll again offer my recommended debate strategy of yesterday for both candidates: Try to let your opponent talk. Don’t complain if s/he goes over the time [...]

  9. [...] Vice presidential debate strategies for Biden and Palin [...]

  10. endithinks said

    It is so amusing to hear how the Republicans have these rifts and splits with so much attention being paid the apparent “split” in the Democratic party. What is so interesting is to see the libertarians scaring the conservatives. Libertarians and conservatives are very much alike if you actually are talking about real conservatives not neo cons or fundamentalists.

  11. [...] elsewhere by James McPherson on October 18th, 2008 I wrote earlier this month, a couple of times (here and here) last month, and even back in May about how the John McCain campaign has managed to turn [...]

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