BIDEN AND PALIN DEBATE

Matt Yglesias observed earlier this week that Sarah Palin tends to do fine in situations where she can pivot from the question to her own talking points and a cobweb of faux-folksy generalities. She does poorly when the questioner tries to get her to answer the original question. Katie Couric did this. Gwen Ifil didn’t. So Sarah Palin got to respond to a question on Bush’s Israel policy by chiding Joe Biden for talking about George Bush. She got to answer the gay rights question by talking about her gay friends – though she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She got to handle the economic questions by rhapsodizing about her pretend middle class lifestyle (she must agree with John McCain’s definition of low-seven-figures income as middle class).

Watching tonight’s debate should make it clear for anyone who wondered why the McCain campaign wanted so badly to limit the time each candidate got to talk and the time they got to interact with each other. Palin had shown in the past that she could do a fine job with rules like this; it’s unfortunate that the competent job she did tonight will draw attention away from the ways she’s embarrassed herself over the past couple weeks. Overall, she came off as more polished tonight, but Biden clearly knew better what he was talking about. Biden let himself get somewhat frustrated and flustered, but I think he managed to stay within the lines imposed on him not to sound mean to Palin, and the moments where he vented some of that frustration (“John is no maverick on the issues that people sit around the kitchen table worrying about”) were his best.

For two people who were hold up much of the week practicing, both Palin and Biden had a surprisingly hard time speaking in sentences that someone could read on a page and actually make sense of. Palin kept saying things backwards – global warming causes human beings – while Biden would get partway through one thought and then switch over to a different one.

It’s really maddening that this format allows Palin (and McCain last week) to lie about her opponent, never respond to the refutation of the lie, and then continue repeating it later on.

Biden seemed a bit too concerned with touting his own record rather than Barack Obama’s – he defended his bankruptcy bill that Obama voted against, and towards the end when asked about their accomplishments as a ticket used up his time talking about what Joe Biden had done. He was compelling talking about his experience as a single dad but stepped on his own moment a bit by suggesting Sarah Palin was being sexist.

If Palin really wanted to respond to a question about bipartisanship by just naming the line-up of GOP Convention speakers, shouldn’t she have included George Bush and Cindy McCain?

Call me an East-Coaster if you like, but I think when Sarah Palin leapt on Joe Biden’s explanation of his war vote and attacked him for nuance she sounded nasty, and when she spoke for “America” telling “Government” by name to stop taxing us she did sound like Tina Fey telling Russia to “go shoo.”

Note to the media: Sarah Palin appealed tonight for vigorous fact-checking of what each candidate said. Don’t disappoint her!

OBAMA AND MCCAIN DEBATE, ROUND ONE

Who won? I’d say scoring the debates on points, McCain came out somewhat ahead. But neither guy really distinguished himself, which is a victory for Obama: going into the debate more people wanted to vote for Obama, foreign policy is supposed to be John McCain’s best chance to get people to vote for him instead, and many of those people just needed Obama to hold his own and show himself a credible commander-in-chief, which he certainly did.

Neither man seemed really comfortable in his own skin, and each smothered some attack lines and one-liners by delivering them in a half-apologetic sounding way. But McCain, as we knew before, is a somewhat better debater. He sounded crisper, and he drove his lines of attack more directly and consistently. Obama went too far out of his way to emphasize where he agrees with McCain, and he didn’t draw on some of the more powerful lines of attack he’s leveraged against McCain in other fora (now that Iraq’s Prime Minister and George Bush have both come out for timetables, John McCain is standing all alone on this issue).

Mostly, Obama seemed eager to correct the record on particular points but once the debate moved from the economy to foreign policy, he offered a lot of good arguments against John McCain but not a unified theory of why he’d be a scary president.

Like George Bush in 2000 responding to Gore’s attack on his actual opposition to the actually-existing Patients’ Bill of Rights Legislation by spewing bipartisan happy-talk, John McCain did a good job of parrying criticism of his actual record with empty words about how he loves the veterans so much and they already know he’ll take care of them (even if he votes against improving the GI Bill) and “no one from Arizona is against solar power” (even though he keeps voting against solar power – maybe because he’s not from Arizona, he just moved there to run for Congress). If the media keeps letting them get away with that stuff, why wouldn’t they keep doing it?

As for the format, the much-hyped interactive format, to Jim Lehrer’s great consternation, mostly just made it clear that neither senator wanted to interact too much with the other. They didn’t respond to too many of each other’s attacks either.

Haven’t waded into the talking heads’ spin yet, but this seemed to me like a debate unlikely to distract attention for too long from the $700 billion bail-out that seems to be coming down the pike or the Bush-McCain record that got us into the mess. Not to worry: John McCain will cut down on our $18 billion in earmarks! (Does that include aid to Israel?)

SUSPENSION AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Remember when Howard Dean was going to suspend his campaign for president? You know, no more campaigning, no more staff, no more press releases, no more interviews, no more trying to get people (aside from the good people of Vermont, who couldn’t help themselves) to vote for him? That was a big deal.

On the other hand, you could be forgiven for wondering, given that John McCain is still sending his Vice President and his surrogates out to rally the faithful, still has TV ads airing (and they’ll all be back on Saturday), is still out spewing his own campaign talking points while his campaign still blasts Barack Obama, and still took the time to address (the painstakingly gracious and bi-partisan) Bill Clinton’s group while other US Senators were trying to make a deal, just what the big deal was when he announced he was suspending his campaign.

But we shouldn’t understate the significance of John McCain’s sacrifice: if he actually votes on bailout legislation, it’ll be his first Senate vote in six months! (That makes McCain the Number One Absentee Senator, ahead of Tim Johnson, who was recovering from brain hemorrhage). So if McCain’s campaign sees it is a world-historical event when he considers his first (potential) Senate vote since he was traipsing around on a largely ignored biographical tour and trying to take advantage of Hillary Clinton’s news hooks, who can blame them?

CULTURE OF LIFE/ CHOICE

In the comments, Ben – who we can all agree should start his own blog ASAP – offers a thoughtful response to the last post:

Don’t you think a person can consistently hold that (1) under current law, abortion is a matter of individual choice; (2) as long as abortion is a matter of choice, there is a single right answer that women ought to choose; and (3) since many women nevertheless make the wrong choice (in this person’s view), and the harm of making the wrong choice is sufficiently great, the law should not leave abortion to individual choice? This constellation of beliefs would explain, without contradiction, feeling pride in another person’s choice not to have an abortion while supporting legislative measures to take the choice away from them. Similarly, “Choose Life at Yale” can consistently pursue a two-pronged agenda: (a) as a stopgap measure, advocating for women to exercise their choice under current law in a particular way, and (b) on the assumption that (a) will not be 100% successful, advocating for denying women the choice in the first place. In this way, Palin’s rhetoric about her daughter doesn’t seem different to me than a moral vegetarian’s both feeling pride in a child’s decision to be a vegetarian and favoring the criminalization of meat-eating.

Absolutely, I agree that it’s philosophically consistent (a) to want abortion/ animal cruelty/ awful haircuts banned and (b), for as long as the practice remains legal, to support/ admire people who choose against it.  I think very few people, whatever the practice in question is, would maintain (a) and not (b).  Lots of people, however, maintain (b) and not (a) (and not just on bad hair-cuts).  That is, lots of Americans believe abortion is a choice that should be available but that should not be chosen.  Others wouldn’t go so far as to say abortion is always the wrong choice, but will admire and be more comfortable with people who choose against it.  These pro-choice voters who (whether always, or just usually) want people to choose life represent a huge chunk of our electorate. That’s the reality politicians on both sides of this issue face.

Fortunately for these “(b) but not (a)” voters, there are a lot of “(b) but not (a)” politicians out there.  Depending on where you set the bar, you could count most pro-choice members of Congress in this group.  So voters who are uncomfortable with abortion but don’t want it banned tend to have ample opportunity to vote for representatives who reflect their desire for abortion to be both legal and rare.

Anti-choice politicians need these voters to choose instead to vote for someone who shares their discomfort with abortion but not their opposition to banning it.  There are different ways to do this: emphasizing abortion restrictions that these pro-choice voters may support and the pro-choice candidate does not, chipping away at the sincerity of the pro-choice candidate’s desire to reduce abortion, and more.  Another is to shift the focus away not just from Roe v. Wade, but away from policy questions entirely, so that (b) is the only issue.

I say the way Palin talks about these issues is misleading not because I doubt that she and others maintain both (a) and (b) with conviction and consistency, but because (setting law-breaking aside) (b) is only an issue given her failure to achieve (a).  And emphasizing (b) in the way Palin does regarding her daughter, and the way some of her admirers do in talking about Sarah’s choice to birth Trigg, obscures the most significant policy question here – abortion’s legality – while appealing not just to voters’ negative feelings about abortion but to their positive feelings about choice.

And when anti-choice politicians talk about their respecting their daughters’ choices – particularly when they are fathers like John McCain – it helps take the edge off their anti-choice politics by making them seem tolerant of the whole range of choices women make, even or perhaps especially when they cite their admiration for pro-life choices.  I don’t have reason to doubt that John McCain or Sarah Palin would continue loving a daughter who chose abortion without throwing her out of the house.  But if they had their way with the supreme court, those daughters could be thrown in jail.  So I think non-coerciveness as parents is a distraction from coerciveness as politicians.

There’s also a class issue here, in that as long as abortion is legal but subject to the cocktail of restrictions anti-choice folks are pushing at the state and federal level, women from families like the Palins and the McCains can go on making their choices while those “small town voters” they vouch for have less and less choice to make.

WHOSE CHOICE?

Dahlia Lithwick notes the mendacity of choice language on abortion from anti-choice politicians like McCain and Palin:

In announcing that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant last week, GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin used this puzzling locution: “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby.” Pundits were quick to point out that Bristol’s “decision” must have been at least somewhat constrained by her mom’s position–as articulated in November 2006–that she would oppose an abortion for her daughters, even if they had been raped…So what exactly, one wonders, was young Bristol permitted to decide?

These rhetorical somersaults are, as Lithwick notes, the same ones John McCain employed in talking about a hypothetical Meghan McCain pregnancy eight years ago. There’s no mystery here: Americans like choice more than they like abortion. Republicans know this, so they dress up their hard-line anti-choice positions as though they were just about choosing against abortion, while never conceding that there should be a choice at all (in my college days the student anti-choice group was called Choose Life At Yale; they published an ad comparing voting for John Kerry – who also advocates choosing life but is pro-choice – to voting for Jefferson Davis). And the media too often plays along, as when the New York Times profiled women in an abortion clinic making painful choices that weighed medical, religious, economic, and social factors; the Times held up these women, who were doing exactly what the pro-choice movement defends women’s right to do, as representing a middle ground in the abortion debate.

I’d add that watching Palin’s gymnastics on choice is probably the most interesting part of the 2006 gubernatorial debate re-aired on C-SPAN over the weekend. For someone who wants the government to criminalize a woman’s choices about her future, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is awfully “personal.” She answers the first question on choice – about whether as a public official she would attend a public event to publicly support legislation banning abortion – by saying that she’s pro-life and “I don’t try to hide it and I’m not ashamed of it.” When asked whether a rape victim should be able to choose abortion, she objects that it wouldn’t “be up to me as an individual” whether that woman was forced to carry the fetus for nine months – leaving unsaid that if she had her way, it wouldn’t be up to the woman as an individual either. But Palin makes clear that she’d force the rape victim to carry the fetus by specifying only the life of the mother as acceptable grounds for abortion. Then she answers the follow-up question by saying rape is “a very private matter also, but personally, I would choose life.” The hypocrisy here is glaring: if Sarah Palin indeed wants that woman’s choice to be private, she should oppose government outlawing it. But she doesn’t.

So it should come as no surprise a minute later when she addresses euthanasia with the same rhetorical sleight of hand: “This is a very personal and private and sensitive issue and I do respect others’ opinions on it, but personally I do believe that no, government should not be sanctioning or assisting taking life.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RISING OF THE WATERS?

Last night we learned from Mitt Romney that John McCain is going to make the sun stop rising in the east and start rising in the west. Good thing he’s not a messianic elitist like Barack Obama.

To be fair, God does make the sun stop so Joshua can beat up the Ammonites, so why shouldn’t John McCain expect the same assistance in taking out those dread journalists and community organizers?

SUMMER NON-READING

Whatever Fred Thompson’s been doing since he finished pretending to run against John McCain for President, it’s sure kept him busy. Otherwise he surely would have read in the newspaper that John McCain doesn’t like too much talk about his POW service. And you’d think Fred would have been more careful than to say that being a POW doesn’t qualify you to be President – must have missed it when Wesley Clark got savaged by Republicans and the media for saying the same thing.

I guess if Fred managed to miss all that, we shouldn’t be surprised that he hasn’t yet gotten around to reading the Obama speech Fred claims was “designed to appeal to American critics abroad” in Berlin (“…just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe”).

Seems Fred’s sure been busy. Guess it really wasn’t fair for anyone to call him lazy after all.