TOPICS > Politics

Biden, Palin Spar on Taxes, Economy, Iraq in Vice Presidential Debate

October 2, 2008 at 11:45 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: OK, first, let’s get some reactions here now, first reactions from syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Your first reaction?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I’m sort of amazed, to be honest. It was a very spirited, very energetic, almost relentlessly energetic, fast-paced debate.

And to be honest, I knew Joe Biden was capable of it. I wasn’t sure of Sarah Palin. I thought she was every bit his equal.

I thought she was fluid, confident. She struck her theme, just the regular, old mom.

But she handled the foreign policy issues. She did fine with Iraq. She did fine with Iran. She certainly hit energy often enough.

I suspect Republicans are going to be quite pleased, not that she won the debate, but she held her own with Joe Biden.


MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Republicans are breathing a lot easier right now. Democrats are disappointed that she didn’t implode. This was a far cry from the Katie Couric performance, where I think she was embarrassed and embarrassing.

We saw something quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in American presidential, vice presidential debates. She was relentlessly colloquial and informal in her speech, in all her metaphors. And, you know, candidates do that. They talk about their roots. And Joe Biden talked quite compellingly about being a single parent.

But I thought, you know, the “I bet you,” the “doggone its,” it was something we’ve never heard before. And, you know, the question is, does it appeal?

I agree with David. There were no — there were no major missteps. There were exaggerations or hyperbole on both sides. But I think Governor Palin was probably more conspicuous for that.

But still, I think that she came through it far, far better than those around her expected going in.

The candidates' high points

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
It was just that style of "me versus Washington." I thought it was quite effective for [Palin] in general. [...] I suspect most people will really like that.

JIM LEHRER: What did you see? It's an unfair question, but that's what I do. What did you think the highlight was for each one? Was there -- was there a particular moment or a particular thing one of them said? Let's start with Governor Palin.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, Governor Palin, I do agree with Mark. The key moment is the colloquial, is the "gosh darn its," the soccer mom, the hockey mom, the Joe Six-Pack, the Main Streeter, sort of the mention of the East Coast. I mean, it's not enough to be suspicious of Washington. She's sealing off the whole East Coast.

And that will either work or it's not or it won't. But I think it's authentic to her.

I thought the mistake she made with Katie Couric was she tried to be a wonk. And she's not. She could do policy. She did quite well on the gubernatorial issues, I thought. She also did quite well on mentioning John McCain all the time, much more than Joe Biden, who scarcely mentioned Barack Obama. She did quite well with that.

But I thought it was just that style of "me versus Washington." I thought it was quite effective for her in general. I suspect most people -- there are a few more Hallmark moments, Norman Rockwell moments, but I suspect most people will really like that.

JIM LEHRER: Let's stay with you on that, Mark, on high points for Sarah Palin.

MARK SHIELDS: I guess what struck me was her willingness to just cut loose the Bush administration. I mean, greed and corruption, Washington, Wall Street, blunders, Iraq...

JIM LEHRER: She used the word "blunder" several times.

MARK SHIELDS: ... yes, I mean, it was just -- it was amazing. I mean, you know, it really -- she doesn't feel any encumbrance about being an apologist, defender, supporter of the administration.

And I was, frankly, surprised that Joe Biden didn't tie, you know, the record of the Bush administration -- I mean, she talks about lowering taxes is going to create jobs magically. And yet the lower taxes of the Bush administration, now we're seeing jobs lost for eight months in a row.

But I just thought that the fact that the high energy level at which she went, Jim, that both of them did -- I mean, there wasn't a pause. There wasn't -- there wasn't any humor, you know, a couple of smiles. But, I mean, it was relentless, I think is the...

JIM LEHRER: What was the high point for Joe Biden, do you think, in general or...

DAVID BROOKS: I actually -- I may be an anti-intellectual -- I am often accused of that -- but the moment where he talked about his family.

I thought one of the weaknesses for Biden was that he -- surprisingly, he was the one who seem coached. He hit every policy point relentlessly and didn't show enough of the Joe Biden personality, which is a winning personality. But at the end there, when he talked about his family and the death of his wife...

JIM LEHRER: Choked up, actually.

DAVID BROOKS: He did. And that's a moment where -- you know, people remember -- what they remember about debates is the moments when you think you see the person. And that was a moment where you thought you saw Joe Biden.

MARK SHIELDS: That was the view into his soul. "I understand. I understand." And he -- you could see it was a genuine moment. He had to catch himself. He had lost it.

JIM LEHRER: And that was in response to her saying that she was...

MARK SHIELDS: Her talking about she understood what everyone was going for, and Joe talked about, you know, "I understand what it's like," because he was a single parent, because he lost his wife, and he had two little boys.

Historians' perspectives

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
I think you will hear those voices on the right, particularly conservative intellectuals, who have been calling publicly for [Palin] to get off the ticket, I think that will go away.

JIM LEHRER: OK, now into the mix now let's bring presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, people that are familiar faces and voices and minds to you all.

Michael, was any history made today?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, I think in one way, and that is, you know, we saw Adlai Stevenson distance himself from the unpopular Harry Truman in '52. And Hubert Humphrey tried to do that with LBJ in 1968.

But Sarah Palin put both of them in the shade tonight. She left George W. Bush way behind in the snow. You would think that there was almost no connection between them, especially because, on one of the rare occasions when Joe Biden essentially tried to say, "This is the president of your party," and she said, "You know, Joe, you're looking backwards. Say it ain't so."

And I think the result of that was, you didn't have a candidate who was trying to defend a lot of the Iraq war, as unpopular as it is, or even some of the president's decisions that may have led to this economic crisis.

And the result was that this was sort of an argument by her relentless that was not too different from a lot of the Republican presidential campaigns all the way back to '72. "The Democrats will give you high taxes. They're too weak."

I thought that she went almost over the line in saying that Biden and Obama, if elected, would raise the white flag of surrender. I think that was really not of the stature of a potential vice president.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, what's your first impressions here? And take it in terms -- put it in a context for us.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Sure. Well, I agree with David. I think, in a sense, that she obviously surpassed expectations if you thought that Tina Fey basically had set, you know, the threshold.

I think the biggest change that will probably occur as a result of this evening, I think you will hear those voices on the right, particularly conservative intellectuals, who have been calling publicly for her to get off the ticket, I think that will go away. There is no doubt that Sarah Palin's name will be on the ballot on November 4th.

Beyond that, I have to tell you, you know, we're all understandably spending a lot of time talking about Governor Palin. Joe Biden had a difficult job, in some ways, going into this. Remember Vice President Bush 20 years ago with Geraldine Ferraro,

Remember going into this debate, everyone was speculating about, would he be condescending? Would he talk down to her? Would he make her a sympathetic figure by, you know, inadvertently? Would he be too long-winded? Would he make gaffes?

And the fact is, I think he turned in a solid performance this evening. So, on balance, I'm not sure this is really a game-changer.

A game-changing night?

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
There was not a gaffe on either side. And I think both sides were relieved.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Ellen, a game-changer for either one?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Well, I think it may have been; it may not have been. We'll have to wait and see how it all plays out.

But what's fascinating to me was that, in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was asked how she could be commander-in-chief during the vice presidential debate when she had no military experience.

And, furthermore, wouldn't it be likely that the Soviets might take advantage of her, were we to have a woman president or vice president? Wouldn't this somehow weaken the powers of the office to have a woman holding it?

And she answered in a very straightforward way. And throughout that entire debate, she never made reference, really, to her gender.

Tonight, we heard a debate being waged here in which Governor Palin repeatedly referred to being a mom, to soccer games, to parents, to third-graders, to hockey moms, and to her own children, to her family.

And in that 25-year period almost that has gone by, it's an enormous sea change, it seems to me, in the politics of gender. I would wager that, if Geraldine Ferraro had said these things in 1984, that she would have been criticized for calling attention to her role as a mother and relying on that as a kind of expertise.

Tonight, I thought Governor Palin raised these issues repeatedly as qualifying her in some special way for the office that she aspires to hold.

JIM LEHRER: Did you think she did so effectively?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I found it a little bit folksy for my taste, but the voters, of course, will decide. I thought that what we were hearing was a kind of populism in which the implication was that complex problems are not very complex and that common sense is really a qualification that she holds, like many other Americans, that will help solve the problems the nation faces.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, back to you on Joe Biden. You heard what Richard said, that all the things that were on his table to perform or to accomplish in this debate, and, according to Michael, at least, that he did -- he accomplished them. How do you feel about that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, and both of them were probably helped by the rules, the McCain side that was worried that Sarah Palin, if you had longer answers and, as you know better than anyone, Jim, these were rules that were different from the ones that you operated under last week, much more clipped answers, much less sort of interaction between the two candidates.

And so there was not a gaffe on either side. And I think both sides were relieved.

But I didn't think that they really looked equal tonight. I think she got through without saying something that would damage her in the way that some of these interviews that she's done with Katie Couric and others have done during the last week.

But I think Biden gave the sense of someone who's a little bit more human, a lot more willing to confess human error. His was sort of, "You know, here I am, warts and all." I think that's appealing in a public figure.