Biden's difficult balance

Tonight's vice-presidential debate raises a tricky question for Joe Biden: How to beat Sarah Palin without coming off as a dick.

Published October 2, 2008 4:45PM (EDT)

I must say, I don't envy Joe Biden. The man already has a reputation of being long-winded and prone to gaffes, and now he's going up against Sarah Palin -- that scrappy, moose-huntin' hockey mom who might not know many Supreme Court decisions but is likely to know exactly how to make Biden look like an asshole.

Biden claims that reporters are in a "time warp" if they think he'd prepare differently to debate a woman than he would a man -- but that doesn't appear to be entirely true. The Wall Street Journal reports that he has been preparing by sparring against Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, chosen not just because she "ran as an outsider and reformer" in 2002 and 2006 but because she's a sports mom and, yes, a former beauty queen. I'm going to bet Biden would have prepared a bit differently if McCain had chosen Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

Since Biden beats Palin hands down in matters like "experience" and "knowledge of the issues," his real challenge Thursday night is how to not come off like a dick (cf. George H.W. Bush debating Geraldine Ferraro in 1984). Biden might have difficulty with that regardless of the gender of his opponent, but the fact that Palin's a woman does put him in a bit of a double bind: It's not just that he can't appear condescending; he also can't seem like he's going too easy on her. Either one, the Journal correctly points out, would lead to accusations of sexism.

This brings up the interesting question of why no one seemed too worried about coming off like a jerk in front of Hillary Clinton (Obama's "you're likable enough" comment aside). Is that because Clinton, to quote Amy Poehler's impersonation of her, "has a pair" -- and wasn't actually thought of or treated as "female"? If that's the case, then could Palin bring an interesting new challenge -- a female candidate who emphasizes her femininity?

Maybe, but I think something else is happening here: Palin's gender is being used as a cover. Biden is going up against someone who, feisty and scrappy though she may be, is simply not as knowledgeable or prepared as he is, and if she were a man, Biden's task would be relatively easy. But the fact that Palin is a woman gives her a convenient defense: using accusations of sexism as a way to cover up her weaknesses. It's a tactic that might work in the short term, but in the long run would be damaging both to Palin and to America's perception of women's ability to lead.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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