The VP Debate: Sassy Meets the Statesman

Anyone who was expecting a knock-out in last night’s debate was disappointed. And to that degree, *both* campaigns can breathe a sigh of subtle relief. But Senator Obama’s camp less so, because after the Couric interviews they genuinely hoped that Governor Palin would be made to look ridiculous once again on a national stage.

And yet: in most of the ways that matter, she did. She was too folksy, too colloquial, and ultimately simply unbelievable.

While there were substantive matters of disagreement between the two vice presidential candidates, it is relevant to note that what this debate was really about was providing the two a forum in which to provide us a glimpse of their “authentic” selves.

On that point, the matter of self-presentation, the contrast could not have been clearer: it was the Soccer-mom versus the long-time Washington Senator. And here, I think, in *these* troubled times, is why the Senator wins, going away.

“Gosh” and “God bless ‘em” and “doggone-it” are not presidential or vice presidential phrases. Governor Palin’s performance represents an actual *demotion* of executive rhetoric from the Bush standard, if such a thing were possible. And I’m not nearly as worried about how she speaks as I am worried about what she was really trying to say, what she really wanted to tell us about herself.

Governor Palin—that’s right, *Governor*—chose the tried and true cutesy strategy of first being the smiling and sassy maverick, and then the “aw-shucks,” put-upon mother of five who is subject to all of the economic and cultural pressures foisted upon her by the dysfunction of Washington, DC. And there’s the rub: how is a victim of the system, one of us, gonna change that?

Biden presented an entirely different persona. He knows what the problem is, he knows its history, and he knows the corridors of power well enough to work across the aisle to make real a difference. That is where a difference in style is also a difference in substance.

The two disagreed about substantive matters we knew they would disagree about: on climate change (entirely man-made says Biden… still uncertain, says sassy Sarah); on the war’s central front (Afghanistan, says Biden, from September 11, 2001 ‘til today… Iraq, says Palin, adding to the sass by saying that Democrats wish “to wave the white flag of surrender” there); and on the causes of the current fiscal crisis (deregulation and Reaganomics, says the Senator… a failure of personal responsibility, says the finger-wagging soccer-mom).

They agreed about some things too—most notably, that the *middle class* is the “shrinking center” that both parties need to capture on Election Day.

But the moment in which the vast difference between these two scripted persona became clearest came in one of its more unscripted moments. Palin had clearly never thought about the issue, though she’d been coached in very general terms about it. Biden has been living it for the past eight years.

The question began innocently enough, inviting them to reflect on what they envisioned their role as Vice President to be. But the question really concerned what we might almost call the “Cheney doctrine” of Vice Presidential power. Cheney’s idea is that the US Constitution actually defines the Vice President as a unique straddler, located in a vague and ambiguous space in between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. What that means to Cheney himself is that he is not really in the system (and thus there is no oversight body relevant to his office). That’s what been so terrifying about this rogue Vice President, and his shrinking staff.

Governor Palin blithely told us that she anxiously anticipates taking up these exciting new duties, standing somewhere in between the White House and the Legislative branches. Senator Biden, who’s been there, said he looked for

ward to working between the Execute and Legislative branches, and then he told us why that difference in language matters. The Vice President is a “go between” not an “in between”—it’s an active job, not a static mode of unregulated being.

Cheney’s interpretation of the US Constitution is, in Biden’s words, “bizarre.” And it is. Article2, Sections 1 and 5, of the US Constitution clearly locate the Vice President in the Executive branch of government. As titular President of the Senate, the one and only active role he or she would play in the legislature would be to cast a tie-breaking vote (Article 1, Section 3).

Governor Palin asked us to imagine her as “one of us,” a somewhat bedazzled and occasionally befuddled soccer-mom talking to her friends in between Timmy’s and Tammy’s games: “Gosh, I really don’t know what the Vice President’s actual duties are, doggone-it, but I’m a maverick, and I’ve got enough sass to show them a thing or two.” More to the point, since her political experience is all in the executive branch (as a mayor and as a governor), she doesn’t really seem troubled by the Cheney doctrine.

Senator Biden told us precisely why he is troubled: he is a Senator who has served in that capacity for decades, and who can tell you—chapter and verse, on constitutional grounds—why Cheney’s definition of Vice Presidential power is bizarre. As a long-time legislator, he is profoundly troubled by the past eight years of executive power-grabbing in matters ranging from war to corporate bail-outs.

For the Bush-Cheney doctrine of executive privileges is more than merely bizarre. It’s unconstitutional, and it has been enormously dangerous. In an election of this magnitude, can we really afford the vacuous persona Sarah Palin continues to put on as her sassiest and strongest suit?

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See also: You Lost the Debate, By Mary E. Hunt

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