There are some moments when members of a political movement come together as one, sharing the same thoughts, feeling the same emotions, breathing the same shallow breaths. One of those occasions occurred Thursday night when Republicans around the country crouched nervously behind their sofas, glimpsed out tentatively at their flat screens and gripped their beverages tightly as Sarah Palin walked onto the debate stage at Washington University in St. Louis.
There she was, resplendent in black, striding out like a power-walker, and greeting Joe Biden like an assertive salesman, first-naming him right off the bat.
Just as the midcentury psychologist Abraham Maslow predicted, Republicans watching the debate had a hierarchy of needs. First, they had a need for survival. Was this woman capable of completing an extemporaneous paragraph — a collection of sentences with subjects, verbs, objects and, if possible, an actual meaning?
By the end of her opening answers, it was clear she would meet the test. She spoke with that calm, measured poise that marked her convention speech, not the panicked meanderings of her subsequent interviews.
When nervous, Palin has a tendency to over-enunciate her words like a graduate of the George W. Bush School of Oratory, but Thursday night she spoke like a normal person. It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona — the straight-talking mom from regular America — and it was immediately clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer moms, hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, main-streeters, “you betchas” and “darn rights.” Somewhere in heaven Norman Rockwell is smiling.
With a bemused smile and a never-ending flow of words, she laid out her place on the ticket — as the fearless neighbor for the heartland bemused by the idiocies of Washington. Her perpetual smile served as foil to Biden’s senatorial seriousness.
Where was this woman was during her interview with Katie Couric?
Their primal need for political survival having been satisfied, her supporters then looked for her to shift the momentum. And here we come to the interesting cultural question posed by her performance. The presidency and the vice presidency once was the preserve of white men in suits. As the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick pointed out on PBS Thursday night, if, in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro had spoken in the relentlessly folksy tones that Palin used, she would have been hounded out of politics as fundamentally unserious.
But that was before casual Fridays, boxers or briefs and T-shirt-clad Silicon Valley executives. Today, Palin can hit those colloquial notes again and again, and it is not automatically disqualifying.
On Thursday night, Palin took her inexperience and made a mansion out of it. From her first “Nice to meet you. May I call you Joe?” she made it abundantly, unstoppably and relentlessly clear that she was not of Washington, did not admire Washington and knew little about Washington. She ran not only against Washington, but the whole East Coast, just to be safe.
To many ears, her accent, her colloquialisms and her constant invocations of the accoutrements of everyday life will seem cloying. But in the casual parts of the country, I suspect, it went down fine. In any case, that’s who Palin is.
On matters of substance, her main accomplishment was to completely sever ties to the Bush administration. She treated Bush as some historical curiosity from the distant past. Beyond that, Palin broke no new ground, though she toured the landscape of McCain policy positions with surprising fluency. Like the last debate, this one was surprisingly wonky — a lifetime subscription to Congressional Quarterly. Palin could not match Biden when it came to policy detail, but she never obviously floundered.
She was surprisingly forceful on the subject of Iran (pronouncing Ahmadinejad better than her running mate) though she stepped over the line in claiming that Democrats sought to raise the “the white flag of surrender.”
Biden, for his part, was smart, fluid and relentless. He did not hit the change theme hard enough. He did not praise Barack Obama enough. But he was engaging, serious and provided a moving and revealing moment toward the end, when he invoked the tragedy that befell his own family and revealed the passion that has driven him all his life.
Still, this debate was about Sarah Palin. She held up her end of an energetic debate that gave voters a direct look at two competing philosophies. She established debating parity with Joe Biden. And in a country that is furious with Washington, she presented herself as a radical alternative.
By the end of the debate, most Republicans were not crouching behind the couch, but standing on it. The race has not been transformed, but few could have expected as vibrant and tactically clever a performance as the one Sarah Palin turned in Thursday night.