From her surprising pick, to her outstanding convention speech, to her subpar television interviews, to last night’s superb debate performance, Governor Palin has covered a huge amount of ground in the last five weeks.
One should not underestimate the significance of last night. Given the McCain campaign’s very bad last two weeks, if Palin had done poorly, the McCain campaign might have cratered. Her performance, after all, had become a referendum not simply on herself but on Senator McCain’s judgment, making this vice presidential debate more important than most.
Instead, Palin–in the face of overwhelming pressure, with the narrative of an out-of-her-depth hockey mom about to be written in stone, and with some conservative commentators saying she should be dropped from the ticket–delivered an outstanding effort. The result will be that she not only reassures, but also reinvigorates, conservatives and grass-roots Republicans.
Governor Palin did several things well last night. While missing some opportunities to respond to factually incorrect statements made by Senator Biden, and while obviously still in the midst of a learning curve on some matters, she was conversant on the issues. She was on the offensive much of the time, especially on Iraq. She made effective use of Biden’s past criticisms against Obama. She knows how to make an appealing populist case (though I found it excessive). She did a nice job of distancing the McCain campaign from the Bush presidency, arguing that she and McCain are forward-looking while Biden and Obama are stuck in the past. And she was able to hammer home the McCain-Palin reformist credentials pretty well.
But where she shone the brightest, and where I thought she absolutely overwhelmed Biden, was in how she carried herself, with confidence, poise, and good cheer. She showed she can score effective points without coming across as mean-spirited or petty. Her colloquialisms work because they are authentic. Governor Palin has real natural talent, and it helps that she’s a happy, upbeat (political) warrior. Those things aren’t the only things that matter, but they matter enough. Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition, for example, was an important part of his leadership. And Senator Obama’s supporters, and even some of those who don’t support him (like me), believe his temperament and equanimity count in his favor.
This would have been a successful debate for Governor Palin even if the expectations had not been so low; the fact that they were, and the pressure was so great, makes it an extremely impressive one.
In terms of the campaign, I suspect she stopped the McCain campaign’s bleeding. If the House passes the bail out/rescue plan today, it means that come Tuesday, when the next presidential debate is held, the McCain campaign has a chance to reboot.
Vice Presidential candidates almost never win, or lose, an election (LBJ was the last one to influence the outcome of a presidential race). But they do play an important role in the ebb and flow of things. Last night Sarah Palin helped John McCain. But most of all, she helped herself. Regardless of how this campaign turns out, we haven’t heard the last of her.