Tag Archives: Vice Presidential Debates

The Gwen Ifill non-issue issue

The day before the Joe Biden – Sarah Palin debate, the story broke that Gwen Ifill, the vice presidential debate moderator, is biased towards Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.  This must mean, after all, that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin will not receive fair questions from Ifill.

This is what the Republicans are claiming.  Former Republican Congressman John Hostettler from Indiana has called for Ifill to step aside. 

Greta Van Susteren from Fox News claims to have broken this story to the McCain campaign.  They claim that they were unaware of Ifill’s book.  

GretaWire (Van Susteren’s blog) asked 2 questions from her ‘What do YOU think?’ post. 

To clean up some confusion…the Gwen Ifill moderator issue is simply this set of questions:

1/ will Gwen Ifill’s book sell better if Senator Obama wins? if the answer is that it won’t make a difference in sales, then her bias should not be questioned. If yes, then it should be.

2/ the book apparently has only a few pages about Senator Obama..then why is HIS name on the cover in the title? coincidence? or as a specific marketing tool to sell more books (i.e. make more money?)

I think these questions are fair.  Is Van Susteren suggesting that a professional journalist can not put aside personal opinion in order to fairly moderate a debate?  Was she offended when George Stephanopoulos asked Barack Obama about William Ayers and Weather Underground in the Democratic Primary?  The question was given to Stephanopoulos by Sean Hannity who we all know loves Obama.  And let’s not forget that Stephanopoulos was the communications director in the Bill Clinton administration and Hillary Clinton was in this debate where Stephanopoulos asked a clearly biased question.  If I recall, Greta was quiet after that debate nor did she state any objections prior to the debate about Stephanopoulos’s selection as moderator.

On Inauguration Day 2009, Ifill’s book ‘The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama’ will be released.  It was announced in July.  Here is the synopsis of the book from Amazon.

In THE BREAKTHROUGH, veteran journalist Gwen Ifill surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.

Ifill argues that the Black political structure formed during the Civil Rights movement is giving way to a generation of men and women who are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1960s. She offers incisive, detailed profiles of such prominent leaders as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and U.S. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, and also covers up-and-coming figures from across the nation. Drawing on interviews with power brokers like Senator Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and many others, as well as her own razor-sharp observations and analysis of such issues as generational conflict and the “black enough” conundrum, Ifill shows why this is a pivotal moment in American history.

THE BREAKTHROUGH is a remarkable look at contemporary politics and an essential foundation for understanding the future of American democracy.

Sounds pretty biased to me. 

Last second responses of feign outrage by the right:

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin wrote in yesterday’s New York Post:  “she’s so far in the tank for the Democratic presidential candidate, her oxygen delivery line is running out.”

Greta Van Susteren:   “In law, this would create a mistrial.”

Former Florida Republican congressman Joe Scarborough who currently hosts Morning Joe on MSNBC stated:  “Let’s get real here. What would journalists say if in 2004 Jim Lehrer wrote a book called ‘Breakthrough, the age of Bush?’ ”

Joe, I refer you to my comment above about Stephanopoulos.

But not all on the right were critical:

John Weaver, former advisor to John McCain:  All of this hand-wringing, excuse-making and whining keeps McCain’s economic recovery plan away from the public.  Gwen Ifill is as honorable and fair a journalist as there is, and all of us in our business know that.”

John McCain told Fox News that Miss Ifill is “a professional” and said he thought “she will do a completely objective job.”

Sarah Palin said, “I’m not going to let it be a concern.”

Gwen Ifill:  “I have to let people judge me by my work.”

*  *  *  *  *

The Timeline:

July 23rd: The Washington Post published an article about the book’s release.  This story was picked up in hundreds of newspapers nationwide including the conservative Washington Times.

August 21st:  Ifill wrote an article for Time Magazine discussing her book.

August 21st:  The Obama and McCain campaigns have agreed to terms on the moderators for the debates.

August 29th:  Sarah Palin is selected as John McCain’s running mate.

Mid September:  An article appeared in The Washington Post discussed Ifill’s book and her role as vice presidential debate moderator.

October 1st:  Feign outrage by the right as they appear stunned that Ifill has a ‘pro-Obama’ book coming out.

*  *  *  *  *

So, this begs the question:  Has Ifill ever been accused of partiality?   Is there any evidence that she has bias?

Did Chris Wallace treat former President Bill Clinton with the same respect that he had Republican politicians?  Did Bill O’Reilly treat Barack Obama with the same respect as his Republican interviews?  Once again, was George Stephanapolous and Charles Gibson unbiased toward Obama? 

Some believe that this is yet another ploy by the Republicans to further lower the bar.  By calling the moderator biased, they are hoping that Ifill thinks twice before asking any tough questions.  It also gives them yet another claim of gotcha journalism. 

I think this is an embarrassment to the campaign.  If this really is an issue AND the McCain campaign didn’t know about the book until Greta told them, then this is not a campaign that should get anywhere near the White House.  It proves that they impulsively selected Palin without vetting her.  It proves that everything he and his campaign have done over the last 2 weeks has been impulsive. 

Gwen Ifill’s response sums it up perfectly.

“I’ve got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I’m not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation.  The proof is in the pudding. They can watch the debate tomorrow night and make their own decisions about whether or not I’ve done my job.”




More on the Biden – Palin Debate – Pre-Analysis

Debates are not the same as interviews.  Sarah Palin may be asked to provide specifics to the questions addressed to her, but there is no guarantee that she’ll provide a single one.  In fact, it is pretty much assured that she won’t.

Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, a town hall audience member and even Sean Hannity have asked for specifics and I have yet to hear her answer one.  The simplest one that she sidestepped was the Couric question ‘what specific newspapers or magazines do you read?’ 

I don’t know if she couldn’t answer because she can not think of a single one or possibly her handlers told her never give an answer because every time you do, you stand to offend someone.  You see, if she had answered the New York Times, conservatives would have asked why she reads that liberal rag.  If she had answered Fox News, the progressives would have asked why she watches that NeoCon network.  If she said People, Us Magazine would have been upset. 

You don’t want to offend US Magazine or its readers.

When she is standing behind the lectern Thursday night, she can answer as vaguely as possible without any real challenge from debate moderator Gwen Ifill (PBS) or from Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden. 

After I concluded writing my debate pre-analysis (Read here), I decided to get opinions from others on this subject.  What I read was frightening, to say the least.

Andrew Halcro was an independent challenger for the 2006 Alaska governor race and has debated Palin during that campaign.  Here is some insight from Halcro.


What it’s like to debate Sarah Palin 

I know firsthand: She’s a master of the nonanswer.

By Andrew Halcro

When he faces off against Sarah Palin Thursday night, Joe Biden will have his hands full.

I should know. I’ve debated Governor Palin more than two dozen times. And she’s a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality. Against such charms there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do.

On paper, of course, the debate appears to be a mismatch.

In 2000, Palin was the mayor of an Alaskan town of 5,500 people, while Biden was serving his 28th year as a United States senator. Her major public policy concern was building a local ice rink and sports center. His major public policy concern was the State Department’s decision to grant an export license to allow sales of heavy-lift helicopters to Turkey, during tense UN-sponsored Cyprus peace talks.

On paper, the difference in experience on both domestic and foreign policy is like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing a bullet. Unfortunately for Biden, if recent history is an indicator, experience or a grasp of the issues won’t matter when it comes to debating Palin.

On April 17, 2006, Palin and I participated in a debate at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks on agriculture issues. The next day, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner published this excerpt:

“Andrew Halcro, a declared independent candidate from Anchorage, came armed with statistics on agricultural productivity. Sarah Palin, a Republican from Wasilla, said the Matanuska Valley provides a positive example for other communities interested in agriculture to study.”

On April 18, 2006, Palin and I sat together in a hotel coffee shop comparing campaign trail notes. As we talked about the debates, Palin made a comment that highlights the phenomenon that Biden is up against.

“Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I’m amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, ‘Does any of this really matter?’ ” Palin said.

While policy wonks such as Biden might cringe, it seemed to me that Palin was simply vocalizing her strength without realizing it. During the campaign, Palin’s knowledge on public policy issues never matured – because it didn’t have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy.

Palin is a master of the nonanswer. She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she’s met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.

In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn’t like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn’t name a bill.

And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has a canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I discussed the health of local communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable healthcare, and Palin talked about … the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.

So what does that mean for Biden? With shorter question-and-answer times and limited interaction between the two, he should simply ignore Palin in a respectful manner on the stage and answer the questions as though he were alone. Any attempt to flex his public-policy knowledge and show Palin is not ready for prime time will inevitably cast him in the role of the bully.

On the other side of the stage, if Palin is to be successful, she needs to do what she does best: fill the room with her presence and stick to the scripted sound bites.

Andrew Halcro served two terms as a Republican member of the Alaska State House of Representatives. He ran for governor as an Independent in 2006, debating Sarah Palin more than two dozen times. He blogs at www.andrewhalcro.com.

One of the debates between Sarah Palin, Democrat Tony Knowles and Andrew Halcro was held on November 2, 2006.  You can watch that entire debate at KTOO-TV.  Once at that site, click on the Election Special link.

I recommend watching this debate (there have been shorter segments available on YouTube) and I hope that Joe Biden and his team would have reviewed them.  It doesn’t take long before you can see how she handles these general debate questions.  I think Halcro is right in that Biden could have his hands full.  Solely repeating the questions and regurgitating talking points while staring in the camera will cause the average American voter to be taken with her.  Pretty scary to say the least. 

To further this concern over the debate, the Stephen Braun and Tom Hamburger wrote a story that really better open up the Democrats eyes. 

In the story, ‘Underestimate Palin at your own risk, former rivals say’ we are given ample warning that supports Palin’s skills in a debate. 

The Subtitle sums up the entire article.  “With Thursday’s vice presidential debate approaching, ex-aides and opponents of the Alaska governor recall her skill at jabbing with a smile, even if she wasn’t always focused on learning the issues.”

Here are some highlights.

ANCHORAGE — When she appeared for a candidate’s forum in front of a room filled with unionized Alaskan electrical workers during her run for governor in early October 2006, Sarah Palin was woefully unprepared. When the union members grilled her on labor policy, Palin faltered.Afterward, a furious Palin cursed in anger and berated her staff, recalled two former senior campaign aides who blamed her unwillingness to bone up on workplace issues for the blunder.

But just a few weeks later, when Palin jousted with her two main rivals during critical pre-election debates, she was much more at ease. She distilled policy questions into simple answers and countered her opponents’ attacks with verbal thrusts delivered with a sunny smile.

When one moderator asked what she would do if one of her unmarried daughters became pregnant, Palin had a ready answer, defending her antiabortion stance and deflecting the question toward her male rivals: “I would choose life. And I am confident you will be asking my opponents these same scenarios?”

During Palin’s brief exposure to the high-stakes environment of political debates, she has unnerved both her handlers and her opponents. At times she has been handicapped by her lax approach to learning the nuances of policy and state issues, but she has also projected a Reaganesque ability to offer up pithy answers and charm on camera.

“The political landscape here is littered with people who have underestimated Sarah Palin,” said Eric Croft, a former state representative who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006 and appeared with Palin during several early forums.


. . .
Biden could face trouble, Alaskan political observers said, if he takes Palin too lightly. But he also has to take care not to be overly aggressive against a candidate who radiates telegenic appeal.
. . .
As she began her run for governor of Alaska, Palin repeatedly proved difficult to prep for a debate, recalled her two former political aides, who had pivotal roles during her campaign but declined to be identified because of their continuing involvement in Alaska politics.
. . .
“To her credit, she gave a lot of ‘I don’t knows,’ ” one former aide recalled. “But it was clear she didn’t start out with a great range of knowledge about Alaskan affairs.”
. . .
“If you can sit her down, she has a talent for listening to a policy presentation that is so boring it would bring tears to your eyes,” the aide said. “Then — boom — she will nail it down to its essence.”Palin often toted index cards when she walked out in front of the cameras, cribbing from them when the cameras were on her rivals. “She’d carry these cards with her like she was cramming for a test,” Halcro said.
. . .
By the final key televised debate in late October, Palin had grown used to the format, her aides and rivals recalled. Still using index cards, she was breezily confident in her back-and-forth with Halcro and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles.

… Sometimes her remarks seemed glib, but she was usually poised and sometimes kicked back at her opponents and questioners when they took the offensive.

Larry Persily, a panelist questioner in the campaign’s final televised debate, said Palin flummoxed her rivals “like Muhammad Ali dancing around the ring.” She avoided statements and tough questions that could have impaled her and repeatedly stung her opponents. And Palin, a former sportscaster, was easily the most comfortable in front of the camera. “She knows television,” said Persily, who participated in other debates and has watched Palin closely for years. “She knows how to look at her interviewer.”

Palin saved her most devastating riposte for the final question of the debate, when Persily asked the three candidates whether they would hire their opponents for a state job.

Knowles and Halcro offered halting jokes. But when it was Palin’s turn, she pounced.

Smiling at Halcro, who recited reams of statistics by rote, Palin observed that the businessman “would make the most awesome statistician the state could ever look for.”

As the debate audience laughed, Palin pivoted to Knowles, who had owned an Anchorage restaurant. “Do they need a chef down in Juneau?” Palin asked, smiling as she twisted the verbal knife. “I know Mr. Knowles is really good at that.”

Two years on, Halcro and Knowles admit they are still baffled by how their mastery of policy and state issues was trumped by Palin’s breezy confidence and feel-good answers.

“When you try to prove she doesn’t know anything, you lose, because audiences are enraptured by her,” Halcro said. “And her biting comments give you a sense of how competitive she is. Anybody who doesn’t take her seriously does so at their peril.”


The VP Debate – Pre-Analysis

The train wreck we’ve all been waiting for is almost upon us: The Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. I suspect that this will be chock full of sound bites and late night comedy fodder.

Biden is loquacious and sometimes forgets to check the sentence out with his brain before the words come out of his mouth. It has made for some very interesting gaffes over the weeks – actually over his career.

Palin, on the other hand, is like a fish out of water. She has difficulty grasping foreign and domestic policy. She sometimes seems to lose her words in the middle of a sentence. And her body choreographs when she is running through the memorized talking points. (Hint: she leans forward and keep an eye on her left hand.)

It is suspected that the game John McCain played last week with suspending his campaign and trying to postpone last Friday’s first Presidential debate was actually a ploy to delay or cancel the vice presidential debate. After watching Palin’s interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, it is no wonder why they would want to cancel her debate.

Recently, McCain escorted Palin to an interview with Katie Couric. It was reminiscent of a parent – teacher conference with Palin playing the part of the student. McCain seemed visibly agitated in parts of the interview.

Palin is also currently locked away being prepped for this debate. I envision both My Fair Lady and Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Mr. Hand showed up at Spicoli’s house and the 2 discussed history. By George, Eliza Doolittle finally did ‘get it’ and Spicoli finally did make it to the dance.

Early predictions clearly suggest that Biden should mop the floor with her. It could be the most embarrassing debate ever. With expectations as low as they are, how could Palin actually not exceed them? And since Palin has been pretty much sheltered from the media and from the voters, this debate should have incredible viewership.

We’ve seen how she answers questions (actually she doesn’t answer questions) and how she responds in speeches so it is highly doubtful that she’ll come out and pummel Biden like Ivan Drago beat Apollo Creed like a rag doll in Rocky IV. (How’s that for an obscure movie reference. Drago after all was from the Soviet Union which Palin can see from her home.)

I have yet to see her answer with specifics. Which newspapers and magazines do you read? Name some specific policies. Name one Supreme Court decision other than Roe v Wade. Let me check and get back to ya.

Here are the keys to Biden winning the debate. There really aren’t many but he can not fall into any of these traps or he will be considered the loser.

Dick Cheney and John Edwards seated at the 2004 VP debate

Dick Cheney and John Edwards seated at the 2004 VP debate

He has to lean back.  Leaning forward creates the illusion that you are more aggressive and he must avoid that perception at all costs.  Remember the heat that Barack Obama received for simply standing tall while approaching Hillary Clinton in one of their debates?

{Here is how the Democrats seemingly try to shoot themselves in the foot.  In 2000 and 2004, the VP debates with Dick Cheney were held seated at a table.  This prevented Joe Lieberman and John Edwards from being able to be more aggressive in the debates – unless there were just afraid to challenge Darth Cheney.  In this debate, Biden would have been better off seated.  For some reason the Democrats were the ones who wanted this debate behind a lectern.}

Biden needs to keep to the point and stay brief in his answers. When he gets wordy is when he gets into trouble. I have confidence that Biden will be successful here because Obama needed to do the same thing and he was fantastic. He even nearly eliminated the “Uh’s”.

This debate will be similar to Friday’s debate where Biden and Palin should be able to address each other. Biden needs to make sure that he calmly asks her questions. If he gets overly aggressive with pointing out her mistakes or attacking Bush, Palin or McCain, he could come off as bullying. That means he shouldn’t point his finger at all.

Displaying passion and frustration are good but there is a fine line between these 2 emotions and anger. He can not be perceived as angry or he risks getting labeled the same way McCain did on Friday.

Biden should occasionally look over at Palin but focus mostly on the camera when he is speaking. He needs to talk to America and empathize with our situation. He does this very well but there will be more people watching him in this debate than at any other he has ever appeared in.

Most of all, he needs to be very careful. Biden has been in the U.S. Senate since January, 1973. There is a ton of votes in there that she can throw at him. Find a couple that contradict each other, maybe contradict Obama and he could get thrown. Find an obscure vote that is long out of memory and it could be game over. She is cramming for the debate right now and they are preparing questions that are designed to break Biden’s composure.

I’d love to be able to analyze Palin in the same way I have for Biden, but honestly, she doesn’t have the political experience, the debate experience or the intellectual ability to win on those skills. She will have to resort to a real game plan to create the illusion of a successful debate.

Palin will try to keep Biden on the defensive. She will attack Biden and Obama’s record through lies and distortions. If he remains on the defensive he could get frustrated and say something stupid that will immediately give Palin the debate. This will be nothing like any of the debates he attended for the Democratic Primaries.

She will continue to lie about her record. Will she mention that ‘bridge to nowhere’ lie again?

She will continue to use the same technique of staying on the talking points that Bush uses. Example: The economic bailout of the banks was necessary in order to bailout the banks to save the economy from the greedy banks and CEO’s on Wall Street which is bad for the economy. {It is annoying watching people speak in circles and she seems pretty skilled at doing this. How many times will she be able to rephrase the same talking point?}

She seems to like to talk in buzz words. I mean really likes buzz words to the point of repeating them through out a sentence or an answer. I wonder how many games of buzz word bingo will be going on Thursday night and how many of them will include taking a shot every time she says one.

Politicians at this level rarely lose a word they are looking for, especially after the sentence has begun. She has this knack. This is something that has happened to most people but you don’t expect it to happen to a vice presidential candidate.

It will be interesting to see if she gets thrown during this debate. Will she appear to lose her composure or appear agitated? She will be trying to get Biden to lose his temper but I wonder if it will backfire.

I’m sure everyone remembers the device that was protruding from George Bush’s back 4 years ago. I’m sure technology has improved. Biden’s team should verify that she isn’t wired. Then again, I can picture her saying ‘one second’ as a hand goes to her ear or worse saying ‘what’ or ‘can you repeat your answer, I mean question.’


Check out Bush's back
Check out Bush’s back

The bottom line is that the GOP needs Palin to survive the debate without looking foolish.  The only way for her to accomplish this will be to keep pressure on Biden so he remains on the defensive and unable to throw Palin.

Biden will have to be perfect for the entire debate. We all expect him to be confident and give a good debate so a slip-up will remain with Americans – not to mention immediately make it into a campaign ad. The best way to get Biden to slip is to try to get him to contradict Obama’s position.

On the other hand, if Palin has 1 or 2 good moments, Republicans may call the debate a victory for her.

Her only shot with independents and undecideds is to appear competent and somewhat knowledgeable.

Amazingly, it has only been 1 month since McCain introduced Palin to America. In that time, she catapulted McCain to a slight lead in the polls, many people fell in love with her and as quickly as they fell in, they are falling out again. Even conservative columnists have become disenchanted with Palin.

This debate will go a tremendous way in defining the McCain campaign for the next month. Will the she regain the McCain supporters who have called for her to step aside or will this debate cause more to jump ship?

I see this as the most interesting, most important and most defining debate of this election. Will it also be the most viewed?

Grab the popcorn, the bingo cards and the shot glasses.

I just hope Biden asks Palin if she’s ever found out what a Vice President does . . . every day.