Debates leave impressions. They don’t determine elections; rather, they help bring issues and candidates into sharper focus, and for those who aren’t already solidly committed, become part of a dot pattern that over the month of October resolves itself into a portrait of the candidate they are going to vote for — or a portrait of the candidate they are actively going to vote against.
There has never been a national political figure like Sarah Palin, and trying to shoehorn her debate performance last night into the conventional straightjacket into which most campaign commentators snap themselves snugly, lest they suddenly break free and flail about with an independent thought, is a fool’s errand. She is a new force, with an entirely new kind of appeal — and a new kind of irritant and provoker of outrage from those on the other side. What we don’t know yet is whether her appeal transcends partisan categories, or whether she is the best young face that can be put on conventionally conservative American politics.
I think it’s fair to say that the American pundit class, of which I am some kind of member, has not the slightest idea what the final disposition of this question will be this year. That is what happens when something new comes along to alter expectations and dynamics; it is only in retrospect that we will be able to determine the effect, because there is nothing in the past to compare it to.
And yet pundits are going to spend the rest of this weekend discussing whether Palin did enough to move undecided voters to McCain. Forget for a moment that moving undecided voters to McCain is the last thing these pundits want to see Palin succeed at. As they discuss it, pundits sound like anthropologists whose knowledge of the strange and barbaric practices of an inaccessible tribe in far off Papua New Guinea comes entirely from the field reports of other anthropologists.
Watching my old classmate Jeff Toobin and my old boss David Gergen, both of whom share with me a surpassing ignorance of the gut reactions of a fairly traditionalisst swing voter in Western Pennsylvania in the midst of the economic crisis of 2008, attempt to gauge the effectiveness of Palin in speaking to and convincing that voter has an inadvertently comic aspect.
I would trust both of them with my life if I needed an extensive analysis of the offerings at Zabar’s, the relative merits of the executive lounges of different airlines, or the disposition of Harvard’s endowment. But on the matter of Sarah Palin’s appeal, and her ability to help bring that dot pattern to resolve itself in McCain’s favor? That would be like asking me to diagnose the condition of your carburetor. I’ll do it if you pay me, but if you actually listen, the joke will be on you.