"Everybody gets extra credit tonight."That was moderator Gwen Ifill's rejoinder late in Thursday night's vice-presidential debate to Republican candidate Sarah Palin's hockey-mommish line that schoolkids watching the debate should get extra credit.
If Ifill meant that, at the very least, both Palin and Democrat Joe Biden were entitled to points for something they did, well, maybe so. Biden did that which almost everybody said he had to do - avoid both (a) coming on like a wonky Washington insider and (b) patronizing Palin. Accordingly, is he not entitled to some credit? But extra? Hmmm. He did wonk a little, and sometimes his avuncular disbelieving smile could not be avoided.
As for Palin, her mission was simple: Don't self-destruct. And she didn't - largely because she came prepared in the only way a rank outsider to the federal system of government could be - with punch-lines, attack-lines, gambits, and diversions. And she used them all before it was all over
Take the way she started. After greeting Biden, she asked, "Can I call you Joe?" Lest anyone (like MSNBC analysts David Gregory and Chris Matthews, both of whom missed her long-distance segue) think of that as a mere folksyism, unfollowed-up-on, that little business had an obviously designed sequel.
It came late in the debate when Biden had made one of his pre-designed points, bashing the Bush administration and tying the miscreants in power to the president's would-be Republican successor John McCain. With the sprightliness of a quarterback calling a gimmick play designed for a certain kind of defense, she offered this: "I say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again, pointing backwards."
Ouch! A little bit of Shoeless-Joe-Jackson, for one thing. And a conscious echo of Reagan's "There you go again" riposte to Carter, for another. (And later on she actually revived the Gipper's "shining city on a hill!") But the point surely was to let her drop the other foot on her disingenuous request to be familiar. "May I call you Joe?" had been no amenity. It was meant to set up her gotcha line. That was all the "Joe" stuff was about in the first place.
But at least that patently contrived business had a point. Why on earth did Biden keep referring to GOP nominee McCain, his longtime Senate colleague, as "John"? Was that bit of clubbishness an unconscious reminder that he (and McCain) were not exactly natural-born change agents?
An oddity in this debate was that, while Democratic nominee Barack Obama's name got dropped quite a few times -- mainly by Biden pointing with pride, and sometimes by Palin viewing with alarm -- he was never really a presence in the encounter, as both combatants and the absent McCain were.
Biden has to be credited for staying on point. A few post-game kibitzers opined that he was "boring" - especially in the first half of the debate. That's only true if we've come to the point that knowledgeable exposition is too much for all us ADD cases out there.
In point of fact, the first poll taken after the debate - CBS's sampling of undecideds, the kind of people who presumably are inclined to be most open-minded and curious - gave Biden a whopping 46-21 edge and rated his understanding of issues at a phenomenal 98 percent level. Palin was at 66 percent in that regard, something of a triumph in itself.
And, to be sure, Palin had moments in which she was able once again, as at the GOP's convention in St. Paul, to mesmerize an audience with a smoothly delivered line, an unexpected quip, the kind of brazen, cocky you-know-you-like me smile that all flirts -- male, female, sexual or asexual - deploy as a stock-in-trade.
But some of it was patently bunkum. Like her rhetorical appeal to "Joe Six-Pack and the hockey moms across the nation." Aside from the unconscious and probably unintended allusion to her opponent in the repetition of a cliché, she surely must know that almost none of us in the land will encounter a bona fide "hockey mom," no matter how wide and far we look, from sea to shining sea.
And there was this, in response to moderator Ifill's request that she answer, as Biden had done, a question about McCain's attitudes, past and present, toward deregulation of the stock market: "I'm still on the tax thing because I want to correct you on that again. And I want to let you know what I did as a mayor and as a governor. And I may not answer questions the way that you and the moderator want, but I want to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also."
The nonsense of that first: Biden had not said anything on the "tax thing" that required "correcting" or commenting or what-have-you. He had said nothing at all on the subject, hadn't mentioned it. She had, however. Asked about something else, she had gone on with the not-so-mavericky Republican line about lower-taxes, less-government and wanted to do it again.
The actual sense of it, next: Palin was declaring independence from Ifill, who would not, (or so this unknown-quantity governor from Alaska was determined), turn into yet another persecuting interviewer like Charles Gibson or Katie Couric, grilling her on weak points which (to give Palin her due) she would no doubt catch up on - and long before she was that ominous heartbeat away.
And it wasn't just Ifill she was dissing, it was Biden, too, who had just complained, with some justice and much exasperation, that she Hadn't. Answered. The. Question.
Well, no, she hadn't. And she was damned if she would. Not until she was good and ready.
For better and for worse, there is more to say about Ms. Say-rah, whose role was at the heart of this debate. Just what?, you might ask. Well, I'll get back to ya on that! This is just a Part One.
In Part Two, we'll dig a little into the issues as dealt with by the contestants. Stay tuned.