Debates proved twinkle trumps facts

September 27, 2008 

When he faces off against Sarah Palin on Thursday night, Joe Biden will have his hands full. After debating Palin at more than two dozen forums and debates during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, I'll offer some advice to both candidates.

Palin's debate style is simple: She's a master, not of facts, figures or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the non-answer, the glittering generality. Against such charms there is little Sen. Biden or anyone can do.

On paper, of course, the debate appears to be a mismatch.

In 2006, Palin was running to be the governor of Alaska, while Biden was serving his 34th year as a United States senator. While Palin was offering up as few specifics as possible, Biden was talking specifically about his five-point plan he authored with Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, about how a post-war Iraq should look.

On both domestic and foreign policy, the difference in experience is like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing a bullet. Unfortunately for Biden, if history is any measuring stick, experience or a grasp of the issues won't matter when it comes to debating Palin.

On April 17, 2006, Palin and I attended a debate in Fairbanks at the University of Alaska on agricultural issues. The next day, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner published this excerpt:

"Andrew Halcro, a declared Independent candidate from Anchorage, came armed with statistics on agricultural productivity. Sarah Palin, a Republican from Wasilla, said the Matanuska Valley provides a positive example for other communities interested in agriculture to study."

On April 18, 2006, Palin and I sat together in a hotel coffee shop comparing campaign trail notes. As we talked about the debates, Palin made a comment that highlights the phenomenon that Biden is up against.

"Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers and yet when asked questions you spout off facts, figures and policies and I'm amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, 'Does any of this really matter?' " Palin said.

While public policy wonks might cringe, the fact was that Sarah Palin was simply vocalizing her biggest campaign strength without realizing it. During the campaign, from January to November, Palin's message on important public policy issues never evolved -- because it didn't have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy.

In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the Legislature had recently passed that we didn't like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Palin used her allotted time to criticize the unpopular incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn't name a bill.

And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has the canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I mentioned the health of Alaska communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable health care, and Palin talked about the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.

So what should the strategy be for both candidates?

Since the McCain campaign demanded changes in the debate rules to include shorter question and answer times and limited interaction between the two candidates to prevent any free flowing discussions, Biden needs to simply ignore Palin on stage and answer the questions as if he were the only one there. Any attempt to flex policy knowledge to show Palin is not ready for prime time will inevitably cast him in the role as the bully.

On the other side of the stage, Palin simply needs to do what she's always done best during debates: fill the room with her presence and stick to scripted sound bites. With limited interaction, thus less chance of going off message, Palin can definitely hold her own.


Andrew Halcro is a former Republican legislator who ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent. He hosts a radio show on 650 KENI and you can read his political blog at www.andrewhalcro.com.

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