Joe Biden and Sarah Palin were talking to two different Americas Thursday night. Actually, that's unfair to Joe Biden; he was trying to talk to everyone. I can say for certain, though, that Sarah Palin was talking to -- and winking at -- her own private Idaho, and for long stretches of the debate, it was an unnerving experience.
We could be in for a few days of pro-Palin commentary, since her subjects and verbs corresponded. For at least the first hour, she held her own; she was funny sometimes, occasionally charming. Still, the Obama-Biden ticket will survive it. Biden was stronger on every single substantive point, and that's the impression that will last.
But the pit bull in lipstick was back. After her disarming "Hey, can I call you Joe?" Palin was vicious, with a winning smile. After a passionate Biden plea to "walk with me in my neighborhood," in Delaware and Scranton, where "the middle class has gotten the short end," she ridiculed him: "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again! Pointing backwards again!"
There were two key moments for me when Sarah Palin blew it badly. One was substantive, one was symbolic. The substantive was her bizarre statement about being happy that Dick Cheney had expanded the powers of the vice-presidency, and wanting to expand the powers more. I think that's what she said, it was one of many moments I didn't entirely understand her point, but I got her overall meaning. Biden came back with a decisive: "Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president in American history," and he defended the existing limits on vice-presidential power. Point: Biden. Big time.
The symbolic moment Palin flubbed was subjective, of course. But I instant-messaged a friend that she lost the debate when Biden choked up over losing his wife and child in a car accident in which his sons were critically injured -- and she went straight back into "John McCain is a maverick." I truly expected her to express human sympathy with Biden, and her failure to do so showed me something deeply wrong with her. But maybe that's just me.
She made other mistakes that others have already caught: She called the top commander in Afghanistan "General McClellan"; his name is David McKiernan. She said the troop levels in Iraq are down to pre-surge levels; they're not. She simply didn't answer a lot of the questions. Moderator Gwen Ifill tried to pull her back, but Palin is stubborn; she had her talking points, and she stuck to them.
I thought Biden and Palin tied for the first third of the debate, that Palin actually won the second third on moxie and charisma, not policy (Biden looked visibly angry at a few points, and that's never good), but Biden cleaned her clock in the last third. He quoted his dad telling him, "Champ, when you get knocked down, get up!" -- and he listened to his father. Biden got up, and he won the debate.
We'll see how it plays out in the days to come.