Media speculation swirled prior to the vice presidential debate Thursday evening: Would Alaska Governor Sarah Palin make an egregious error on the economy or foreign policy? Would Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.) hurt himself trying too hard to hammer his less experienced opponent? Neither scenario occurred. Instead, the debate resulted in awkward exchanges where the two VP candidates predictably defended their running mates, took potshots at policy proposals, and tried desperately to stay on message. The economy stood out as the top issue. The debate was a bit bizarre. First of all, Biden appeared to have orders not to attack Palin overtly, preferring to follow a preset strategy of putting President Bush and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) together as a package. The lack of a direct attack on Palin frustrated Biden. He tried to cover it up by constantly smiling, which then turned into strange smirks. Palin had problems, too. Like an Alaskan moose caught in headlights, she early on stared stiffly into the camera as if trying very hard to recall prepared talking points. As she slowly settled down, she managed to avoid major gaffes and gained confidence. This translated into a more passionate defense of her positions. Biden was the winner on points. He consistently did a better job of answering the questions from moderator, Gwenn Ifill of PBS, by making substantive statements on facts and policy. Clearly, Palin performed better than expected. But she often dodged difficult questions and answered repetitively.
The economy dominated much of the debate. Biden argued that McCain only in recent weeks converted to a regulator of Wall Street. He pointed to an article where McCain had called for deregulation in the health care industry similar to the deregulation on Wall Street over the last 10 years. "And while (Democratic presidential candidate) Barack Obama was talking about reinstating those regulations, John on 20 different occasions in the previous year and a half called for more deregulation. As a matter of fact, John recently wrote an article in a major magazine saying that he wants to do for the health care industry deregulate it and let the free market move like he did for the banking industry." I wrote about this flip flop last week. Palin refused to discuss McCain's record as a deregulator in Congress. Instead, she repeated the Republican mantra of low taxes as being good for economy and issued charges that Sen. Obama (D., Ill) voted for tax hikes. "I would like to respond about the tax increases. We can speak in agreement here that darn right we need tax relief for Americans so that jobs can be created here," she said. She again later avoided discussing McCain's deregulation history by discussing her record as a tax cutter in Alaska. Obviously, the poor economy has hurt Americans. Both candidates tried their hardest to get sympathy from voters facing tough times by turning to personal stories. Biden experienced difficulty early in life. "Look, I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if your kid's going to make it. I understand what it's like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says, 'I've got to leave, champ, because there's no jobs here. I got to head down to Wilmington. And when we get enough money, honey, we'll bring you down.'"
During the story, Biden choked up briefly. Palin also had her own anecdote. "Being a mom, one very concerned about a son in the war, about a special needs child, about kids heading off to college, how are we going to pay those tuition bills? About times and Todd and our marriage in our past where we didn't have health insurance and we know what other Americans are going through as they sit around the kitchen table and try to figure out how are they going to pay out-of-pocket for health care? We've been there also so that connection was important," Palin said. Other issues touched on in the debate were energy policy, gay marriage, global warming, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter issue offers a greatest difference between the two presidential candidates, with Obama favoring a withdrawal from Iraq to focus on Afghanistan, and McCain opposing this strategy. However, a stumbling economy overshadowed the interludes on other topics. The debate changed nothing in the race, and without a doubt, the economy will continue to be the focus of the election for the remaining four weeks until Election Day on Nov. 4.