From the outside, it seems like the vice presidential debate between Democratic Senator Joe Biden and Republican Governor Sarah Palin should be straightforward: Biden is a seasoned politician, and more than that, a skilled debater. Palin simply is neither. She should be a sitting duck.
But media spin is a funny thing, and Biden should know that just about as well as anyone. Simply winning the debate is only half of the challenge. More than that, Biden will have to win with an incredible degree of tact.
If Biden plays hardball and debates to the best of his ability, confronting Palin at every misstep she takes, he’ll likely be accused of bullying her. The McCain camp will use that to paint both Biden and Barack Obama as career politicians who fight down and dirty to win a political battle.
If Biden goes too easy on her, he squanders an opportunity to highlight what even many on the right are seeing as a fundamental dearth of substantive experience and knowledge on the part of Palin. Her interviews with Katie Couric have brought front and center her lack of political seasoning, from her inability to name a Supreme Court case with which she disagrees, to her propensity to stray off track, positioning her directly contradictory to John McCain.
The other thing Biden can’t do is talk down to Palin. George H.W. Bush made that mistake back in 1984, and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro lambasted him in the media for what she branded as a “condescending attitude.” Lucky for Bush, Reagan was so far ahead by that point that there wasn’t a gaffe in the world that could have cost him the White House. Biden doesn’t have that luxury.
The fact that the middle-age female vote is still up for grabs (or perhaps tentatively leaning toward Obama) puts a new spin on things. If Biden appears to attack Palin, or to sport a “condescending attitude,” a salvo of “sexism” charges will be fired right at the heart of the Democratic ticket. There is perhaps nothing more dangerous that could come out of this debate for Biden and Obama.
What Biden will have to do is stay 100% on the question that is presented to him, and leave any scrutiny of Palin’s responses to the moderator. Instead of attacking Palin directly, he’ll have to let his own answers demonstrate his vastly greater understanding of the challenges facing the country. That will raise the bar on Palin. But for all intents and purposes, he’ll have to conduct himself like she’s not even there on the stage.
Essentially, he’ll have to keep the debate at a high enough level that Palin simply can’t keep up, like holding candy just out of the reach of a small child. If he can stick to discussing the very important intricacies of foreign policies, the Shia-Sunni strife, the conflict in Georgia, and the crisis on Wall Street, it will be unlikely that Palin will be able to definitively match wits.
But in the end, this can’t be Biden vs. Palin. Biden will have to let his qualifications speak for themselves, which will mean shedding the “bare-knuckle fighter” mantle that brought with him when he joined Obama’s ticket.