David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992-1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.
Read the transcript of the Biden-Palin debate, and, whatever your politics, you’re likely to conclude that Biden won each round hands-down. On the financial crisis, health care, climate change, energy, the Iraq War, and especially on foreign policy issues, Biden offered clear and uncharacteristically crisp answers. Meanwhile, Palin repeated the same points over and over again or returned to her favorite subjects: oil, Alaska, and her family. Often her remarks were rambling and disjointed, as when she answered Biden’s criticisms of John McCain’s proposed top-bracket tax cuts by declaring, "I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you."
But people don't parse debate transcripts, they watch the show on their TV screens. Palin looked and sounded friendly, funny, and confident--not at all like other uninformed and less-than-coherent candidates, such as Dan Quayle, who sounded hesitant and seemed flustered during his debates with Lloyd Bentsen and Al Gore. So the early verdicts are that Palin exceeded expectations and held Biden to a narrow victory or even a draw.
Those who predicted Palin's humiliation forgot that she had been a TV sportscaster and knows how to make the camera her friend. But the lesson isn’t just the benefits of media training--it’s the importance of emotional intelligence. For all her unfamiliarity with many issues--and the unpopularity of her positions--Palin’s performance made sense emotionally, with one glaring exception. Indeed, McCain--and even Barack Obama--could learn some lessons from Palin about how to bond with most Americans.
First, in her opening statement about the financial crisis, she identified with everyday Americans who are anxious about being able to retire, to send their kids to college, and to keep small businesses afloat. Always she presented herself as a middle class or working class person, and claimed to understand every issue from that perspective, even when she was arguing for tax breaks for the wealthy. In contrast, when he was asked about the financial crisis during his debate with Obama, McCain led with the process playing out in the Senate and never mentioned the middle class.
Second, she was almost always confident and emphatic, even when she was simply seconding what Biden had said, especially about foreign policy. In such situations, she’d say "we agree," rather than simply saying she agreed with Biden or he was "right," as Obama said of McCain during their debate. When disagreeing with Biden, she seemed regretful and remained smiling. Sometimes, shrewdly, she said she agreed with him when he had disagreed with Obama during the primaries.
Third, she was not afraid to make points that made emotional, if not logical sense. For instance, responding to a question from the moderator, Gwen Ifill, about whether the vice presidential candidates disagreed with their running mates, Palin somehow managed to segue into a tribute to teachers, among them her parents and brother and Biden’s wife, Jill. In so doing, she avoided displaying any of the hostility towards public schools and teachers that recent Republican nominees, including McCain and Bob Dole, have seemed to express.
While Palin did well, Biden did better, combining his own emotional intelligence with fluency with the issues and an understated passion about economic problems in America and extreme human suffering abroad. Indeed, the most emotional moment of the evening was when Biden silently fought off tears while recalling his son’s near-death after the auto accident that left him a single father.
For once, Palin did not respond as a regular human being would. Not even offering Biden a sympathetic glance while he was speaking, she went on to say yet again that McCain is "a maverick." Those who watched the debate from start to finish may have wondered whether Palin really is as warmhearted as she appeared.