The good news for Republicans in last night's vice presidential debate is that Sarah Palin saved herself. Sure, her paper-thin grasp of policy issues and reliance on canned talking points was an embarrassment. She was barely able to cope with a question about the gravest responsibility of the presidency--the potential use of nukes. And many of her sharpest talking points--about funding US troops and the fiendish mainstream media--seemed tailored more for a conservative base already supporting her ticket anyway. Still, before an audience that was prepared for 90 excruciating minutes of Miss South Carolina, Palin avoided committing the kind of indelible, viral-on-YouTube gaffe that would destroy her candidacy, as well as her future political prospects. She drew no blanks, made no major errors of fact. There was no "e" on her potato.
So the calls to dump Palin from the ticket will now stop, except among those hardy Republicans who actually care about her qualifications to be president. (President! Remember that's what we're talking about here, not some high-stakes reality show. In theory, Sarah Palin could be signing executive orders, appointing Supreme Court Justices, and even ordering air strikes on Iran by the time Super Bowl XLIII kicks off in Tampa on February 1. The debate's seemingly-cowed moderator, Gwen Ifill, did disappointingly little to bring that scenario to life.) And with her debate prep and the drip -drip of her network interview gaffes behind her, Palin can now return to whipping up conservative crowds on the stump and charming the obsequious hosts of right-wing talk radio.
Yet what Palin did to actually help--as opposed to not hurting--John McCain is a different question. It's hard to imagine that anything happened last night which dims Barack Obama's very sunny prospects. Palin certainly didn't introduce any damning new facts about Obama's record, or even particularly clever new iterations of old ones. John McCain may have gone to bed last night pleased with the thought that Palin didn't melt down. But as Palin would say, that's looking backwards. Ahead of McCain now is a gruesome tableau, mainly consisting at the moment of the financial crisis, still convulsing on the table like a trauma patient, with McCain in the role of a hapless doctor tangled up in his own stethoscope. Given that prospects for a clean House vote on a financial bailout package are still uncertain, the campaign is sure to spend at least a few more days stuck on an issue that eats away McCain's poll numbers like acid. Meanwhile McCain's team is writing off Michigan as lost, and is now placing bets on weird scenarios like stealing away northern Maine's one electoral vote. In recent days McCain's cranky demeanor has increasingly suggested a man with a sense of creeping doom: He refused to look at Obama during last Friday's debate and frostily accepted his greeting on the Senate floor Wednesday night; he snapped and groused at the Des Moines Register's editorial board; and in B-roll footage of his meanderings around the Capitol hallways these past few days, he has seemed to be grimacing with annoyance (a stark contrast to his rival's unfailingly winning smiles). So, yes, Sarah Palin saved herself tonight. But John McCain is the one who really needs to be saved, and soon it will be too late for that.