The only vice presidential debate of 2008 met faculty experts’ expectations but not hopes that it would be more than a bumper sticker event.
The panel provided pre- and post-debate commentary for a filled-to-capacity audience of more than 500 special alumni and friends in Brown Hall.
Moderating was James W. Davis, Ph.D., professor emeritus of political science in Arts & Sciences, who said, “With these four faculty, we have more information than the two candidates are likely to bring.”
Panelists were Edward F. Lawlor, Ph.D., dean of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, director of the Institute for Public Health and the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor; James C. Morley, Ph.D., associate professor of economics in Arts & Sciences; Andrew C. Sobel, Ph.D., associate professor of political science; and William J. Whitaker, senior lecturer in drama in Arts & Sciences.
Lawlor, who had wanted the candidates to “articulate this complicated beast of health-care reform,” was struck by the debate’s populist tone. “There were dueling attempts to own Main Street: There was Wasilla Main Street, and there was Scranton Main Street.”
Both candidates’ “image of an America like Pleasantville” emphasized the lack of recognition of issues affecting a significant portion of the nation’s population outside the middle class, Lawlor said. “We didn’t hear anything about poverty, about race, about cities, about rural America, about communities, about disparities, about immigration, about mental health, about drug abuse, about crime, about prisons, about welfare, about homelessness.”
With economic issues gripping the nation, Morley thought the candidates failed to address the financial crisis adequately: “Basically, we heard some theories — Biden saying we need to return to regulation, and Palin saying there wasn’t enough oversight. But there wasn’t the discussion I had hoped for on why these candidates support the rescue package in spite of their reservations and how they plan to deal with the crisis.”
Biden’s coverage of spending costs in Iraq did tie foreign policy and economics, one of Morley’s goals for the debate. And Palin’s sprinkled references to Ronald Reagan helped answer his question about her brand of fiscal conservatism.
“Populism, populism, populism” was Sobel’s summary.
He found “logical inconsistencies,” more in Palin’s rhetoric than in Biden’s. For instance, Palin’s support of climate control was mixed with a reluctance to attribute global warming to mankind’s activities. Both candidates proposed to cut taxes while simultaneously funding new initiatives.
The candidates failed in their answers on whether Iran or Pakistan is the more dangerous, Sobel said. He also was disappointed that they failed to discuss how they would go about rebuilding the United States’ stature in the world or how the United States could credibly commit to defending a Europe expanded by former Soviet republics such as Georgia and the Ukraine, should they join NATO, when it would put the United States at risk.
“My hope is that content, issues, ideas, visions and plans for the future are what matter, not the externals of performance,” Whitaker said before the debate. “But, alas, performance matters big time.”
Both Palin and Biden went for simplicity, he later observed.
Palin kept it simple with colloquialism and “a hometown swagger maintained with steadfast care.” He applauded her for looking right at the camera, “talking to you at home.”
Biden used repetition. He also strove to control himself, “motoring along, going into details one after the other, but catching himself and gearing down.” Whitaker found the moment when Biden’s voice cracked as he spoke of being a single parent to be “the most authentic moment of the evening.”
Although style won over substance, the debate brought an “admixture of the excitement of politics and the involvement of students,” Lawlor said. “It is a privilege to be on a college campus to experience the election.”