The Biden-Palin debate

Curiouser and curiouser. This was the Palin of earlier in the campaign--if not quite the Palin of the convention speech, at least the adequate though unspectacular Palin of the Gibson interview.

Weirdly, she seems to do better under pressure. From the vast heights of St Paul, she sank to the subterranean lows of the Couric interviews of recent days. Facing soft questions in an unintimidating setting, her performance in those clips was not just poor but pitiful. She looked terrified; she was faking it, and in a painfully obvious way. I literally cringed to listen to her talk about her foreign policy experience (Russia is just next door), her views on the Supreme Court (none that she knew of), and much else besides. Not merely unprepared for the vice-presidency, she seemed unprepared for conversation with anyone who picks up a newspaper now and then.

Tuning in this evening, every Republican I know was dismayed, and every Democrat jubilant, thinking the election would be as good as decided by 10.30 EST. But no. Back in the pressure cooker, with tens of millions watching, she again seemed relaxed and confident. She lost, by the way--Biden gave better answers, I thought--but she was not crushed by any means. It almost felt like victory, and McCain-Palin lives to fight on.

I long to read the inside story of preparing Palin for prime-time. What on earth did the campaign do to her between St Paul and Couric, to drain her confidence so and leave her looking like a gibbering idiot? Somebody must have decided that she had to turn herself into Biden within the space of a few days--a tall order, even supposing that the campaign needed a Biden rather than an anti-Biden, which she was ready, out of the box, to be.

She needed to cram, of course, but not in order to spew it out by rote in answer to any random question. The main thing--and perhaps, by tonight, this lesson had been learned--was not to pretend to be something she isn't, and not to claim knowledge or experience she plainly does not have. Living near an international border is not a grounding in geopolitics. Imperfectly memorising the names of a few foreign leaders does not cut it. The crucial thing was to seem steady, a quick learner, modest about her current breadth of knowledge, but of sound judgment and firm on certain basic principles. In striving to do well in the pop-quiz style of interview so beloved of the US media--any winner of Jeopardy, by this standard, would make a fine president--she surrendered her greatest advantage: authenticity. She had to refuse to play by those rules.

Whatever the reason--her sense of occasion, a change of coaching staff, who knows?--she did well enough tonight to lift the campaign's head back above water. She defaulted frequently to rehearsed talking points, and to topics she feels most comfortable with--notably energy. But what mattered most was that she never really floundered, and above all she never looked scared. She was herself. Some, certainly not all, of the damage of the past week is erased.

No light whatever was shed on policy issues. There were the obligatory pointless tussles about what Obama and McCain have or have not said about taxes, funding troops, and so forth. Biden pressed the linkage between Bush and McCain, and quite effectively--challenging Palin to point to differences. But her main riposte--this election must look forward not back, enough with the finger-pointing--will have struck many viewers as fair.

There was one real breakthrough. Did you notice? Asked which of their campaign promises might need to be delayed because of the financial crisis--a question put three times to Obama and McCain in their debate, without effect--Biden came up with an answer: "Well, the one thing we might have to slow down is a commitment we made to double foreign assistance. We'll probably have to slow that down." There's brave! That laughing you could hear was me.

Could Biden have been more effective? Maybe. I'm sure many Democrats will criticise him for failing to go for the kill. But I think he judged it just right. He was friendly and courteous, laughed at himself once or twice, and displayed a superior mastery of the issues without ever seeming overbearing. He was much more critical of McCain than of her. Altogether he seemed as likeable as Palin, and much more qualified. Perhaps he could have destroyed her by being more aggressive, but it would have been a risk. Palin in this confident mood would be no pushover. More aggression might have backfired, and could have aroused sympathy for his opponent. A clear win on points was all he needed, and that is what he got. Settling for this was wise. Obama and McCain go into the last round with the Democrat comfortably ahead.