Friday, October 3, 2008

Special Needs: Style & Substance

Dispatch 12
Special Needs: Style & Substance
David Levi Strauss

Two extraordinary things happened last night in St. Louis. First, Sarah Palin showed up for the debate with her A game. She was well prepared and poised, and turned in a sterling performance. After disastrous TV interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, in which she looked like a clueless student in a high school current events class, Palin appeared last night as the formidable politician that so excites John McCain. From her very first words to Joe Biden, “Hey, can I call you Joe?” she was on-message and relentlessly appealing. Deflecting Gwen Ifill’s insightful questions like a goalie at the net, she delivered her prepared remarks like a seasoned professional, peppering her speech with trademark folksy Fargoisms that made it seem like your gutsy, sexy mom had gotten fed up, put on her best black skirt and heels, and come to Washington to kick some ass.

The second and, in light of expectations, even more extraordinary thing that happened last night was that Joe Biden observed this miraculous make-over and brilliant performance, read Palin’s tone and body language, and carefully calibrated his own delivery to perfectly counter it. He treated her with the respect due a dangerous adversary. He listened closely to what she said and responded forcefully, letting the greater substance of what he was saying speak for itself. He did not overreact or become impatient. This was the most disciplined, magnanimous, and moving performance of Biden’s long and storied career.

I think operatives on both sides expected and prepared for a quite different debate, so there were a number of odd juxtapositions, with each candidate responding to something the other hadn’t said. But the Biden team’s strategy was essentially more generous, and was, in the end, able to absorb and subdue Palin’s style, which would have worked much better against, say, Hillary Clinton.

When the Roviacs discovered and deployed Palin, they were returning to the old Reagan playbook, to appeal to the psychopolitical narcissism of some American voters, who want “someone just like them” to lead the most powerful nation on earth. This weird perversion of populism (Pop populism?) helped to get George Bush and Dick Cheney elected. Going back to it now, after eight years of failure and devastation, is a desperate move, and last night, Joe Biden shut it down.


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