This commentary first appeared on AC 360/CNN.COM on October 3, 2008.
By Carl Bernstein
Who won the Palin-Biden debate? Barack Obama, I suspect.
Who was the big loser? In an historic fortnight that had already underscored his erratic nature, John McCain.
The fact that Palin was able to string her sentences together last night – which she couldn’t manage to do in her unscripted interviews with Katie Couric — shows only how low McCain has strapped his presidential quest.
Sarah Palin’s task was an impossible one: to demonstrate that she is ready to be president of the United States. McCain put her in that impossible position; and her performance — all prep and no depth — demonstrated the bind he has put himself in.
Yes, he “energized the base” with his Hail Mary pick of Palin as a running mate. But he also demonstrated cynical disregard for the requirement of stable governance were he to be elected president, and then — through his incapacitation or death — Palin be called upon to exercise the powers of the presidency.
Just how scary a notion that is went on full display last night: She appeared to lack any semblance of the requisite depth, knowledge, or sense of history we should expect in a president or vice president; then she sought to excuse it by saying, “I’ve only been at this for five weeks.”
Yes, she could wink, she could tell Biden, “Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again,” and she could remind us again and again that she is a hockey Mom from the land of Joe-Six-pack (as if Western Republicans don’t swill Pinot Grigio with the rest of the country at their fund-raisers). She seemed incapable of thinking through the American condition and responding to it except by scripted answers, theatrical gestures, and tested buzzwords — and by announcing at the outset that she would decide which questions from the moderator to answer and which to ignore.
Yet Biden’s performance (deeply knowledgeable, sensible, and generally responsive to the questions) was perhaps the best evidence that — considered non-ideologically, but rather on judgment and temperament — Obama may be ready to be president, and McCain — who ought to be ready — is not.
Time after time, Biden had to tell Palin what John McCain’s real record is — as instance after instance — she misrepresented it (or misunderstood the legislative process), repeated easy slogans and bromides and, for the most part perhaps, offended the intelligence of voters who are not already die-hard, ideological proponents of right-wing Republicanism, creationism, or simplistic solutions to tough problems.
“Maverick,” “Maverick,” “Maverick,” she kept repeating about John McCain and herself. Perhaps Biden’s best moment in the best night of his career as a candidate (and I have heard him at his awful worst — i.e., being his own worst enemy) came when he challenged McCain’s constant claim to the Maverick title.
The tactical and intellectual deficiencies of the McCain campaign have been best analyzed by conservative and Republican commentators, and even politicians. George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, Chuck Hagel, come quickly to mind. (Hence, Krauthammer, following last night’s debate: “You can’t blame McCain. In an election in which all the fundamentals are working for the opposition, he feels he has to keep throwing long in order to keep hope alive. Nonetheless, his frenetic improvisation has perversely [for him] framed the rookie challenger favorably as calm, steady and cool.”)
As a former White House (Republican) chief of staff said to me, “Palin is evidence of desperation; she is an embarrassment.” That is the bottom line. (I generally check in with Republicans — not Democrats — to assess how the McCain campaign is doing.) He noted, “She wasn’t vetted, really; it’s an open secret in Washington, but the details of the negligence are better known to Republicans than Democrats.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a future in the Republican galaxy, lacks star power, or couldn’t be a fine Secretary of the Interior in a McCain administration.
It’s too bad. Earlier in his career, until the presidency finally seemed within his grasp, McCain had demonstrated a real willingness to seriously and thoughtfully take on both his party and the Washington establishment when he thought they were wrong — albeit mostly on one issue: pork, an issue he has been heroic on.
But his real opportunity to show independence of his party’s reigning dogma and cultural-warrior-infantry was in his choice of a vice presidential running mate. Instead, McCain, who has lectured us about duty, honor, country first, has left many independent-minded voters who might want to vote for him at an impossible, dangerous impasse: an unprepared vice presidential candidate running on a ticket with the oldest presidential nominee in history — a 72-year-old with four cancer surgeries and medical records he has ordered sealed.
Conventional wisdom has almost always held (JFK-LBJ being a notable exception) that a presidential nominee’s choice of vice president makes no difference in the outcome of the election.
This time it is likely to be determinate, because it tells us so much not only about Sarah Palin, but also John McCain’s state of mind today, and the promise that his political career once held and now appears to have been left behind.