Friday, October 03, 2008

The debate format helped Biden

For last night's vice presidential debate, the McCain camp insisted on a formula that reduced rebuttal and response time. As with Hillary's delegate rules agenda and her Convention agenda, Obama yielded on some procedural points and was excoriated as a wimp. As in his dealings with Hillary, the agreed-on procedures worked out just fine for the Obama camp.

With the shortened format, Biden's powerful rebuttals of Palin's attacks on Obama generally went unanswered. The pattern was reinforced by Ifill's rigid adherence to formula, and by Palin's failure to insist on opportunities to counterattack (instead, she created opportunities to change the subject). So in most cases, a discussion closed with Biden's assertions unanswered. Some examples:

1. Invited to defend McCain's health care plan, Palin outlined it competently:
....he's got a good health care plan that is detailed. And I want to give you a couple details on that. He's proposing a $5,000 tax credit for families so that they can get out there and they can purchase their own health care coverage. That's a smart thing to do. That's budget neutral. That doesn't cost the government anything as opposed to Barack Obama's plan to mandate health care coverage and have universal government run program and unless you're pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately, I don't think that it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds. But a $5,000 health care credit through our income tax that's budget neutral. That's going to help.
Then, Biden:
Now, with regard to the -- to the health care plan, you know, it's with one hand you giveth, the other you take it. You know how Barack Obama -- excuse me, do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax credit you're going to get, a family will get?

He taxes as income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a health care plan through your employer. That's how he raises $3.6 trillion, on your -- taxing your health care benefit to give you a $5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the insurance company.

And then you're going to have to replace a $12,000 -- that's the average cost of the plan you get through your employer -- it costs $12,000. You're going to have to pay -- replace a $12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty million of you will be dropped.

So you're going to have to place -- replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company. I call that the "Ultimate Bridge to Nowhere."

IFILL: Thank you, Senator. Now, I want to get - try to get you both to answer a question...
2. Taxes: Palin charged (rightly) that Obama voted for the pork-laden energy bill that McCain voted against, granting tax breaks to the oil companies; she then took credit for imposing higher taxes on oil companies in Alaska (so high, according to Andrew Halcro, that they're likely to go slow on drilling in Alaska when oil prices drop). Biden's response:

Again, let me -- let's talk about those tax breaks. Barack Obama -- Obama voted for an energy bill because, for the first time, it had real support for alternative energy.

When there were separate votes on eliminating the tax breaks for the oil companies, Barack Obama voted to eliminate them. John did not.

And let me just ask a rhetorical question: If John really wanted to eliminate them, why is he adding to his budget an additional $4 billion in tax cuts for ExxonMobils of the world that, in fact, already have made $600 billion since 2001?

And, look, I agree with the governor. She imposed a windfall profits tax up there in Alaska. That's what Barack Obama and I want to do.

We want to be able to do for all of you Americans, give you back $1,000 bucks, like she's been able to give back money to her folks back there.

But John McCain will not support a windfall profits tax. They've made $600 billion since 2001, and John McCain wants to give them, all by itself -- separate, no additional bill, all by itself -- another $4 billion tax cut.

If that is not proof of what I say, I'm not sure what can be. So I hope the governor is able to convince John McCain to support our windfall profits tax, which she supported in Alaska, and I give her credit for it.

IFILL: Next question.

3. Palin charged twice that Obama voted to cut off funding for U.S. troops in Iraq, because he voted against a funding bill that lacked a timeline. Biden pointed out on both occasions that McCain voted against a funding bill that had a time line. The second time, he pivoted to attack McCain's whole record on Iraq.AGain, the format -- and Ifill, sticking to it, and Palin, failing to assert the classic "first I've got to respond to that" precluded rebuttal:
PALIN (end of riff)...Anyone I think who can cut off funding for the troops after promising not to is another story.

IFILL: Sen. Biden?

BIDEN: John McCain voted to cut off funding for the troops. Let me say that again. John McCain voted against an amendment containing $1 billion, $600 million that I had gotten to get MRAPS, those things that are protecting the governor's son and pray god my son and a lot of other sons and daughters.

He voted against it. He voted against funding because he said the amendment had a time line in it to end this war. He didn't like that. But let's get straight who has been right and wrong. John McCain and Dick Cheney said while I was saying we would not be greeted as liberators, we would not - this war would take a decade and not a day, not a week and not six months, we would not be out of there quickly. John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shias got along with each other without reading the history of the last 700 years. John McCain said there would be enough oil to pay for this. John McCain has been dead wrong. I love him. As my mother would say, god love him, but he's been dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war. Barack Obama has been right. There are the facts.

IFILL: Let's move to Iran and Pakistan.

4. Diplomacy: When Palin went after Obama's YouTube promise to meet with the world's rogue leaders, Biden again dispatched the charge quickly (so quickly he could have been easily countered), then broadened the frame to attack McCain's whole approach to diplomacy. Again, there was no rebuttal after Ifill moved on:
PALIN: But again, with some of these dictators who hate America and hate what we stand for, with our freedoms, our democracy, our tolerance, our respect for women's rights, those who would try to destroy what we stand for cannot be met with just sitting down on a presidential level as Barack Obama had said he would be willing to do. That is beyond bad judgment. That is dangerous.

No, diplomacy is very important. First and foremost, that is what we would engage in. But diplomacy is hard work by serious people. It's lining out clear objectives and having your friends and your allies ready to back you up there and have sanctions lined up before any kind of presidential summit would take place.

IFILL: Senator?

BIDEN: Can I clarify this? This is simply not true about Barack Obama. He did not say sit down with Ahmadinejad.

The fact of the matter is, it surprises me that Sen. McCain doesn't realize that Ahmadinejad does not control the security apparatus in Iran. The theocracy controls the security apparatus, number one.

Number two, five secretaries of state did say we should talk with and sit down.

Now, John and Gov. Palin now say they're all for -- they have a passion, I think the phrase was, a passion for diplomacy and that we have to bring our friends and allies along.

Our friends and allies have been saying, Gwen, "Sit down. Talk. Talk. Talk." Our friends and allies have been saying that, five secretaries of state, three of them Republicans.

And John McCain has said he would go along with an agreement, but he wouldn't sit down. Now, how do you do that when you don't have your administration sit down and talk with the adversary?

And look what President Bush did. After five years, he finally sent a high-ranking diplomat to meet with the highest-ranking diplomats in Iran, in Europe, to try to work out an arrangement.

Our allies are on that same page. And if we don't go the extra mile on diplomacy, what makes you think the allies are going to sit with us?

The last point I'll make, John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago he wouldn't even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now. I find that incredible.

IFILL: Governor, you mentioned Israel and your support for Israel.

In defense of Obama and on attack against McCain, Biden was pitch perfect. He didn't patronize Palin, he didn't personalize his dismissal of her "bogus" (his word) charges -- he refuted them briefly, then broadened the field to attack McCain more generally. He never went after Palin herself -- as he could have, when she claimed to cut taxes as mayor (she raised Wasilla's sales tax, its main revenue source, by 25% to pay for a hockey rink). He made Palin seem like simply a mouthpiece for McCain, and he pounded the absent McCain at will.

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