Monday, October 06, 2008

Assessing Palin and Biden

A friend of mine went me a text message on Wednesday asking for my take on Sarah Palin. I told him I would defer until after the VP debate Thursday night, and then sent the following text Friday morning:
Palin doesn't lack intelligence, she lacks knowledge. Biden, meanwhile, thinks that he knows everything.
Allow me to expand on that.

Sarah Palin is a smart woman. While this may be a remarkable discovery for some people -- namely Democratic partisans -- it shouldn't be. You simply can't be a dim bulb and luck your way into the governorship of Alaska. Her forté, however, is certainly not a deep knowledge of domestic and international affairs, but rather concentrating on the issues most relevant to her state such as energy. She has advanced her career not as a policy wonk but as a PTA mom without the Ivy League resume but plenty of common sense.

She has no pretensions about being smarter than the average voter, rather she portrays herself as someone that understands them. Indeed, she is one of them. Knowing full well that she couldn't tangle with Biden purely on the merits of arcane policy details, she has instead sought to highlight her empathy for the middle class, openly stating her desire to represent "Joe Sixpack."

Folksy references and terminology, however, for me are a major turn-off that have no place in a vice presidential debate. Being discussed are issues of profound consequence that deserve serious answers, not facile displays of empathy. The candidates should be evaluated on the quality of their ideas to address the problems facing this country, not the sincerity of their sympathy towards those impacted by these problems.

When pressed on issues Palin too often retreated into rehearsed talking points or an emphasis of her middle class credentials. That, however, is no substitute for knowledge and a firm idea of how to plan to address the problems that are presented.

Biden, meanwhile, is a character beset by his own set of problems -- mainly that he thinks that his years of service mean that he is an expert on all matters and holds all of the answers. He, of course, does not. Much lauded as a foreign affairs expert, Biden has exercised remarkably poor judgement throughout his career on some signature issues, notably opposing both the defense build-up of the 1980s as well as the Persian Gulf War. He hasn't covered himself in glory in more recent times either, opposing the surge in Iraq and proposing that the country be split into three separate states -- a position that has earned him the enmity of numerous Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi people. The Wall Street Journal also notes that many of his statements in the recent debate were seemingly rooted in fantasy.

Compounding this is his blatant effort to highlight his own humble background and upbringing in Scranton, PA. The only time I actually laughed during the debate was his reference to time spent hanging out at Home Depot. A mental picture immediately emerged of a casually dressed Biden meandering through the aisles of the store in search of the perfect hammer -- it simply doesn't work. Perhaps more significant was his invitation for Americans to join him at "Katie's restaurant in Wilmington. As the WSJ notes, however, Katie's closed in the 1980s.

Palin's middle and working class appeal may be tiresome, but at least it's authentic.

Update: Jonah Goldberg makes some related points in a column today, including one I neglected to bring up:
But here's the difference. Palin is supposed to be everything Biden isn't, according to liberal pundits and mainstream reporters alike. For weeks they've been saying she's ill-prepared, uninformed and lacks the requisite experience. But that criticism is also an excuse of sorts.

Biden has no excuse. He's been in the majors for nearly 40 years, and yet he sounds like a bizarro-world Chauncey Gardner. The famous simpleton from Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There" (played by Peter Sellers in the film) offered terse aphorisms that were utterly devoid of specific content but nonetheless seemed to describe reality accurately. Biden is the reverse: He offers a logorrheic farrago of "specifics" that have no connection to our corner of the space-time continuum.

In short, he just makes stuff up. But he does it with passionate, self-important intensity. He's like a politician in a movie with a perfect grasp of a world that doesn't exist. He's not an expert, he just plays one on TV.
I too noticed this during the debate and commented to someone about it the next day. Biden employs a great technique in which he states things so forcefully that it makes people believe it is true, even though in reality he is simply making things up as he goes. The vast majority of voters lack the knowledge to call him out on it and instead are left impressed by his forcefulness and command of the issues. It's a brilliant ploy.

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