James Taranto is, quite simply, without equal, and his take on the debate surprised the heck out of me… at least at first sight…
Before we get to the debate itself, a point of personal privilege: We spent yesterday evening with a gathering of Republicans, and before the debate we heard quite a bit of grousing about the Gwen Ifill kerfuffle. When the debate was over, we asked the room if anyone had any complaints about the way Ifill handled her moderatorial duties. One guy thought he had heard Ifill, during the postdebate handshake, compliment Joe Biden on his performance, but we think he misheard. We replayed the exchange several times, and it sounds to us as though Biden asked Ifill, "How are you feeling?," and she replied, "I feel great." (Ifill broke her ankle Monday.)
No one had any criticism of Ifill's performance in the debate itself, so we claim vindication for our defense of her.
As for the debate, it seemed to us that the more experienced candidate won by a mile. That, of course, would be Sarah Palin.
Yes, we know–Biden has been in the Senate since Palin was like in second grade. But Palin has Biden beat in terms of the kind of experience that was pertinent last night.
Joe Biden won his first Senate term in 1972, as the Almanac of American Politics recounts:
He ran for the Senate against a popular incumbent, Republican J. Caleb Boggs, portraying himself as a young, energetic alternative to Boggs with an ability to connect with voters. He ended up winning by just a little over 3,000 votes.
Since then, however, he has had essentially a safe seat. He was easily re-elected in 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2002, always getting at least 58% of the vote. He is expected to cruise to re-election a month from tomorrow, giving him something to fall back on in case that Obama opportunity doesn't work out.
All this is to say that Biden has not faced a seriously contested election in more than one-third of a century. (His 1988 and 2008 bids for the Democratic presidential nomination do not count, for the opposite reason: He was not a serious contender.)
Contrast that with Palin. In 1996, when Biden was seeking like his fifth term, she was a 32-year-old city councilman. She took on the incumbent mayor and won. A decade later, she challenged a sitting governor, a man who had held statewide office for 26 years, and beat him soundly in her own party's primary. Then she defeated a popular Democratic former governor in the general election.
True, Alaska is a small state. But Joe Biden has spent 36 years as a creature of the Senate, a body whose population is only 1/6,835th as large as that of the Last Frontier (or 1/6,767th as large if you include the vice president). She is used to communicating with voters. He is used to communicating with colleagues. Last night, the difference was manifest.
Let's go to the transcript and look at what for us was the most glaring example, their exchange on Iraq. Here is Palin:
I know that the other ticket opposed this surge, in fact, even opposed funding for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama voted against funding troops there after promising that he would not do so.
And Sen. Biden, I respected you when you called him out on that. You said that his vote was political and you said it would cost lives. And Barack Obama at first said he would not do that. He turned around under political pressure and he voted against funding the troops.
Here is Biden, answering her in Senate-ese:
John McCain voted to cut off funding for the troops. Let me say that again. John McCain voted against an amendment containing $1 billion, $600 million that I had gotten to get MRAPs, those things that are protecting the governor's son and pray God my son and a lot of other sons and daughters.
He voted against it. He voted against funding because he said the amendment had a time line in it to end this war.
The acronym MRAP, for Mine Resistant Armor Protected, refers to a type of armored vehicle. Biden's amendment appropriating $1.5 billion to buy MRAPs for the Marine Corps passed the Senate March 29, 2007, by a vote of 98-0. McCain was one of the 98 "aye" votes.
So what's Biden talking about? Who knows? Possibly there was some other vote on a version of this amendment that included both the MRAP appropriation and a "timetable" (or, as Palin aptly termed it, the "white flag of surrender"). Or maybe Biden construed McCain's vote against a measure providing for troop funding and surrender to be a vote against funding the troops.
In any case, Biden's claim that "John McCain voted to cut off funding for the troops" is at best too clever by half. It makes sense–if at all–only to those steeped in the minutiae of the legislative process. On its face, and in terms of real substance, it is a preposterous claim.
(We should note here that in last week's presidential debate, McCain lapsed into Senate-ese at times as well. It's not as much of a problem for him as it is for Biden, but it does put him at somewhat of a disadvantage against Obama, who is far less deeply immersed in the Senate's culture.)
Biden often was a joy to watch, especially on the split screen when Palin was twisting the knife. Much of the time he came across as frustrated and angry, as if it was beneath his dignity–he, a 36-year veteran of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body–to share a stage with this . . . this . . . girl! But frequently when she got in a good gibe, he would smile broadly. It was as if he couldn't help but appreciate her show of political talent, even though it was at his expense.
One moment that was both touching and odd came toward the end of the debate, when Biden mentioned a personal tragedy–a traffic accident that devastated his family just weeks after his election to the Senate:
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.
Then he noted that he is well off today and continued:
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.
His voice cracked a bit as he said this; we thought he actually might start to cry. It was a moment of genuine emotion, but it was also, as we said, odd, for this reason: No one during the debate had said he didn't understand "because he's a man." We don't remember anyone saying it in any other setting either. The mere fact of Palin's sex seems to have put Biden on the defensive.
Meet With Him Anon
One of the most heated disputes in the debate concerned Barack Obama's attitude toward Iran. Here are the candidates' claims:
Palin: Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, the Castro brothers, others who are dangerous dictators are one that Barack Obama has said he would be willing to meet with without preconditions being met first.
And an issue like that taken up by a presidential candidate goes beyond naiveté and goes beyond poor judgment. A statement that he made like that is downright dangerous because leaders like Ahmadinejad who would seek to acquire nuclear weapons and wipe off the face of the earth an ally like we have in Israel should not be met with without preconditions and diplomatic efforts being undertaken first. . . .
Biden: Can I clarify this? This is simply not true about Barack Obama. He did not say sit down with Ahmadinejad.
The fact of the matter is, it surprises me that Sen. McCain doesn't realize that Ahmadinejad does not control the security apparatus in Iran. The theocracy controls the security apparatus, No. 1.
Stephen: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.
In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries? . . .
Obama: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them–which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration–is ridiculous.
Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq–one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.
They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.
It seems Biden is right on the very narrow factual point: Obama did not specify Ahmadinejad as the Iranian "leader" with whom he would meet. But Palin's broader critique of Obama is quite on target: Whichever Iranian Obama had in mind, it was both naive and dangerous for him to advocate allowing Iraq to collapse and then expecting Iran and Syria to behave "responsibly."
Biden himself agreed with Palin back in 2007, as National Review's Byron York reported:
Biden, who has emerged as the clear-eyed antiwar realist in the Democratic race, told National Review Online that the idea of a president meeting with Ahmadinejad, Chavez, and others was "naïve." "World leaders should not meet with other world leaders unless they know what the agenda is, so you don't end up being used," Biden said.
Since Biden and Obama have made much of the fact that Ahmadinejad is but a figurehead, it might be nice if someone would ask Obama if his willingness to meet without preconditions extends to Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's "supreme leader."
Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary
Did Joe Biden endorse same-sex marriage last night? At first we thought so:
Ifill: Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?
Biden: Absolutely. Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.
The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution we should be granted–same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, et cetera. That's only fair.
It's what the Constitution calls for. And so we do support it. We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do.
Palin also supported benefits for gay couples, but drew a clear line:
Ifill: Governor, would you support expanding that beyond Alaska to the rest of the nation?
Palin: Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And unfortunately that's sometimes where those steps lead.
But I also want to clarify, if there's any kind of suggestion at all from my answer that I would be anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners, choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves, you know, I am tolerant and I have a very diverse family and group of friends and even within that group you would see some who may not agree with me on this issue, some very dear friends who don't agree with me on this issue.
But in that tolerance also, no one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties.
But I will tell Americans straight up that I don't support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go round and round about what that actually means.
But I'm being as straight up with Americans as I can in my nonsupport for anything but a traditional definition of marriage.
Then Ifill gave Biden a chance to recover from his apparent misstatement:
Ifill: Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?
Biden: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it.
Both Palin and Biden ostensibly ended up taking essentially the same position: no to same-sex marriage, yes to tolerance and accommodation. Yet one suspects that there is actually a world of difference between the two.
Burr, It's Cold in Here
Ifill asked one obscure but intellectually fascinating question: whether Palin and Biden agree with Vice President Dick Cheney's view that the vice president, because of his role as president of the Senate, is an officer of the legislative as well as the executive branch.
Neither Palin nor Biden is a constitutional scholar, so neither had anything terribly interesting to say about the subject. (Biden tried to fake his way through it and ended up mixing up Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution.)
But Biden began his answer with a hilarious bit of hyperbole:
Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history.
Something tells us Alexander Hamilton would disagree.