A can't-lose debate strategy for Joe Biden

The Democratic V.P. candidate can put away Sarah Palin simply by prompting her to talk about energy and global warming.

Published October 2, 2008 10:08AM (EDT)

Democratic vice president candidate Joe Biden has been given a gift that I don't think any politician of either party has ever received. He gets 45 minutes of free airtime in front of a huge national audience to debate his opponent with little fear of substantive rebuttal. Sarah Palin simply lacks the knowledge to rebut any detailed factual charges, especially on clean energy and climate, two issues of great concern to swing voters.

On the overall energy issue, Palin is one bullet-point deep, constantly repeating the myth that she and McCain support an "all of the above" energy solution, when in fact the greenwasher from Arizona has an environmental record as dirty as the global warming denier from Oklahoma. Palin is certain to bring up the need for more offshore drilling. When she does, Biden should agree and repeat some version of the response that Obama used successfully in the first debate:

And that means, yes, increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling, but we only have 3 percent of the world's oil supplies and we use 25 percent of the world's oil. So we can't simply drill our way out of the problem. What we're going to have to do is to approach it through alternative energy, like solar, and wind, and biodiesel, and, yes, nuclear energy, clean-coal technology ... Over 26 years, Senator McCain voted 23 times against alternative energy, like solar, and wind, and biodiesel. And so we've got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to energy independence.

Biden should keep repeating the line, "Over 26 years, Senator McCain voted 23 times against alternative energy." Palin can't rebut indisputable facts. In fact, Biden should simply prompt her to talk about energy, because the more she does, the more she is likely to make a mistake, as we've seen again and again. She mistakenly thinks this is one subject area she understands, and because she is supposed to be the country's leading expert on energy, according to McCain, her mistakes on energy are far more damaging to her and the Republican ticket.

In the first debate, Obama won this important issue in the minds of undecided voters because he forcefully stated his plan for energy independence. During the debate, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg ran a dial group of 45 undecided voters in St. Louis. "These voters had an unmistakably Republican tilt, voting for President Bush by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 and self-identifying as 33 percent Republican and 27 percent Democrat." What did Greenberg see?

On one of the most important issues to these voters -- who will do a better job achieving energy independence -- Obama ... more than doubl[ed] an already impressive 20-point lead on the issue to 44 points. Obama scored some of his highest marks on our dials when talking about the need to make America energy independent. Even those who felt [Obama lost] the debate agreed in our follow-up focus groups that Obama was the more persuasive candidate on energy independence.

Independent voters also care a great deal about the environment. And Biden has a free shot at Palin on the biggest environmental issue of the day: global warming. Palin is going to be nervous saying anything about global warming because she might contradict McCain, who believes humans do cause global warming. Palin disagrees with her boss and can't seem to get her talking points straight.

When Palin was first picked, a print interview revealed that she had placed herself in the camp of those who deny that humans are causing global warming. Yes, she said, she saw evidence of climate change in Alaska, adding: "I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."

Her assertion contradicts the planet's top climate scientists. In a major 2007 synthesis report, they concluded: "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [>90 percent change] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-caused] GHG concentrations." The wording of this conclusion was agreed to by every member government in the world, including Saudi Arabia, China and the Bush administration.

The McCain campaign has clearly been trying to give Palin new talking points, which she clearly hasn't mastered. Her interview with CBS' Katie Couric makes this painfully clear.

Couric: What's your position on global warming? Do you believe it's man-made or not?

Palin: Well, we're the only Arctic state, of course, Alaska. So we feel the impacts more than any other state, up there with the changes in climates. And certainly, it is apparent. We have erosion issues. And we have melting sea ice, of course. So, what I've done up there is form a sub-cabinet to focus solely on climate change. Understanding that it is real. And ...

Couric: Is it man-made, though, in your view?

Palin: You know there are -- there are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues that we're dealing with now, with these impacts. I'm not going to solely blame all of man's activities on changes in climate. Because the world's weather patterns are cyclical. And over history we have seen change there. But kind of doesn't matter at this point, as we debate what caused it. The point is: it's real; we need to do something about it.

It's true: She said "contributed" when I assume she meant "attributed," although her sentence would still be a meaningless generalization. Still befuddled, she said she is not going to solely blame man's activity on climate change. Presumably she meant she wouldn't solely blame climate change on man's activity.

But here is the real jaw-dropper. Palin commented that it doesn't matter whether climate change is cyclical or caused by humans. That betrays a stunning lack of understanding about climate change and even about what she has been told to say. If recent warming and climate change are merely part of naturally cyclical weather, then why do "we need to do something about it." If it's just part of a cycle, then the weather will sooner or later just go back to normal if we do nothing. For that matter, why has McCain devised an elaborate global warming bill to reduce human emissions?

It is because global warming is primarily due to sharply increasing human emissions of greenhouse gases that we know that continuing unconstrained emissions will make climate change worse. It is because humans are causing climate change that humans can prevent climate change.

Onstage with Palin, Biden should accuse McCain of not being serious about global warming. He should state that McCain never once mentioned global warming in his acceptance speech. Biden should look into the camera and say that McCain has picked somebody to succeed him who doesn't accept the scientific evidence that humans are causing climate change.

If Palin ignores him, Biden will score a powerful blow to McCain's undeserved image as an environmentalist. If Palin responds, she will no doubt say something as absurd as she did to Couric.

The bottom line is that Biden can highlight Obama's energy policies with little fear that they can be rebutted. He can hammer away at McCain and watch, along with the nation, Palin defend her running mate at grave risk to the Republican ticket. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Biden must not screw up.

By Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees ClimateProgress.org. He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Environment Joe Biden John Mccain R-ariz. Sarah Palin