02 October 2008

Debate II: Biden vs. Palin

Prime time brought us a confrontation between two mediocrities, one at least with sufficient seasoning in office to be entrusted with a higher position. Neither is very articulate, but while Senator Biden sometimes trips over his tongue, Governor Palin's often wraps her up and throws her to the floor. Watching her talk, one must agree with her that education is a very high priority. Her debating style is an onslaught of run-on sentences packed with superfluous verbiage to fill time. Still, she did not show ignorance, if only because her handlers could more reliably anticipate the questions of a debate moderator than those of a more eccentric interviewer like Katie Couric. Commentators thought that Biden kept his distance from Palin, criticizing the distant McCain rather than risk appearing to pick on a helpless female. I thought there was one time when he should have blasted her out of the room, and that was when she accused him of "waving the white flag of surrender" in Iraq. There had to be a way to tell her that she had no right, that she should dare not say such a thing about him, without him looking like a bully, but perhaps there is something in Palin's schoolmarmish style (in the "Hot For Teacher" sense) that inspires defensive feelings toward the Alaskan.

Biden made the single most despicable utterance of the entire debate when he faulted the Bush administration for encouraging elections in Palestine. He put the Democratic Party which he represents in the position of opposing democracy in another country. I know we're supposed to fault the democracy-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun policy of Bush, but that policy was not being applied in Palestine. Biden, staunch friend of Israel that he is, was appalled when the Palestinians elected an Islamist, rejectionist regime. At least the Bushies and neocons pretend to believe that democracy and Zionism go hand in hand, but the more "realist" Biden will tell you straight up that democracy should be put aside if it discomfits Zionism.

Meanwhile, Palin made the single most worrisome remark when she endorsed and hoped to extend upon Cheney's "flexible" approach to the vice-presidency. The governor seems to think that the Constitution gives the Senate discretion to expand the "authority" of its presiding officer.

The Constitution, of course, does no such thing. Article I, Section 3 says "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided." The Senate once had flexibility in selecting a Vice President before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment; under the original election rules, if there was a tie for second-place in electoral votes, a Senate vote broke the tie. A different and maybe dangerous degree of flexibility was introduced with the ratification of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in 1967. That amendment gives the Vice-President, acting with "a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide," the power to declare the President "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Nothing in the language seems to require medical proof of incapacity. Further, the VP, acting with that same "majority of either the principal officers [etc.]," can dispute the President's own "written declaration that no inability exists" and with consent of 2/3 of Congress prevent the President from reclaiming his office. Is that what she has in mind? Is that what all the conservatives who fawn and gush over her while still distrusting the elderly McCain have in mind? Think about it.

When all was over, I thought Biden had won by default because Palin seemed to avoid questions and refused to engage with the issue of the Bush administration and its legacy. Whenever Biden brought up Bush to remind the audience that McCain was too often in agreement with the President to qualify as a maverick, Palin chided him for looking backward and pointing fingers, which someone who wanted change, she claimed, should not do. But shouldn't we understand why we need change by pointing out what needs to be change, and what we need to change from? Her unwillingness to defend Bush except implicitly in her vindication of the Iraq war should be seen as a capitulation and a silent damnation of her own party. Biden prevailed by projecting a certain minimal competence that Palin can't yet convincingly imitate. But so long as either candidate's "principal" takes a less-flexible view of the vice-presidency than Palin prefers, this debate should not be decisive for the general election. McCain and Obama have two more rounds to go.

No comments: