Would she or wouldn’t she? To tell from the lavish – some would say obsessive – coverage that preceded the vice-presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri, last week, the question that was on every self-respecting pundit’s mind was: “How, or, to be more precise, how poorly, will Palin fare?”
Following a series of highly publicized interviews in which she had “distinguished” herself for her absolute lack of grasp of foreign and domestic policy issues – citing Alaska’s proximity to Russia and her whirlwind tour of Iraq as examples of her “substantial” experience. (To give you an idea of how truly inane her responses were, Tina Fey, a performer on the popular comedy/satire show Saturday Night Live, only had to recite Palin’s lines to elicit huge guffaws from the audience.)
This accompanied weeks of embarrassing coverage during which her qualifications for the vice presidency were called into question – even by several high profile conservative writers – and many of her standard stump speech lines (see: the Bridge to Nowhere) were exposed as blatant lies by a newly reinvigorated press. Her frequent gaffes provided ready fodder for late-night comics and an Obama campaign eager to portray McCain’s running mate as a likeable, but thoroughly unqualified, pick. Joe Biden, whose own verbal mishaps have earned him the reputation of being the classic foot-in-the-mouth politician, seemed almost unnoticeable, by comparison.
It was to everyone’s surprise then that Palin managed a respectable, though error-filled, performance this past Thursday. Mustering her best folksy persona, Palin sought to “aw shuck” and “doggone” her way into the viewers’ hearts – all while consciously skirting Gwen Ifill’s questions about her and John McCain’s past records. While Joe Biden’s performance was by no means thrilling, it was informed, measured and heart-felt (especially when he talked about the deaths of his first wife and daughter). And, unlike Palin, who seemed to be giving just another version of her stump speech, Biden’s answers hewed closer to Ifill’s questions.
Though I may be mistaken, I believe this debate marked the first (or, at most, second) instance in which the moderator asked the candidates about their views on climate change. Tellingly, Palin responded by first calling into question the “manmade” nature of climate change – arguing that while there is “something to be said also for man’s activities,” the “cyclical temperature changes on our planet” also play a crucial role – and by then questioning the basis for Ifill’s question, saying that she didn’t want “to argue about the causes”.
She boasted that she was the first governor to form a climate sub-cabinet – in fact, twenty-eight states had already taken action beforehand and she has done very little, if anything, with her cabinet – and that, as the head of the only Arctic state, she knows climate change is “real” (apparently a major plus in her opinion). She then went on to rattle off some of the specifics of McCain’s “all of the above” energy plan (which really isn’t), praising its emphasis on “safe” nuclear power, offshore drilling and, her catchphrase of the night, “energy independence”.
Biden started his answer by unambiguously declaring climate change to be “clearly manmade” – in sharp contrast to Palin (though, to be fair, McCain has also accepted its anthropogenic nature). He lambasted McCain’s dismal record on alternative energy funding – the senator from Arizona has voted 20 times over the last decade and a half against funding renewable energy – and criticized his energy policy’s almost single-minded focus on “Drill, baby, drill” (what Palin called “environmentally-friendly” drilling). He also came out in support of “clean coal” (i.e. carbon capture and storage) technology, a position that has earned the Democratic ticket a lot of flack from environmentalists, and of stringent carbon emission caps – a position Palin also seemed to embrace (contrary to her hedged answer during the Katie Couric interview), after some prodding by Ifill.
A major point of contention was Barack Obama’s vote in favor of the 2005 energy bill – admittedly, an oil-friendly, subsidy-laden piece of legislation – which Palin used as evidence of the Democratic candidates’ double-speak on green issues. At the time, Obama justified his vote by citing its support for “clean coal” technology and ethanol (McCain is a fierce opponent of ethanol subsidies).
McCain, who opposed it, did so because he believed it would jack up gas prices in his home state and that its tax incentives for people buying fuel-efficient vehicles were excessive – not because, as he and Palin would have you believe, it “gave Big Oil billions in subsidies and giveaways” as one of his (many) attacks ads has alleged. (In fact, as FactCheck.org has reported, the bill actually “resulted in a small net tax increase” on oil firms.)
Palin bragged about the windfall profits tax she imposed on oil companies during her tenure as governor – a policy McCain strongly opposes – which she claimed showed her willingness to take on corporate CEOs like “Tillerson at Exxon and Mulva at ConocoPhillips” to “break up a monopoly” (though she did “bless their hearts”). As Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has reported, though, while Palin may like to think she regularly challenges Big Oil’s influence, she is not above soliciting advice from “scientific” organizations funded by Exxon and others.
While it wasn’t a home run performance, it’s pretty clear Joe Biden won the debate (not that he was facing much competition to begin with). His support for clean coal technology, though understandable, was regrettable to many; as the NYT’s Andy Revkin mentioned in a blog post on the debate, “capturing CO2 at a scale that would be meaningful remains a pipe dream”. His lack of specifics on his ticket’s support for “safe” nuclear power was also somewhat disappointing – when is nuclear power really “safe” anyways? – though he made it abundantly clear that an Obama presidency would invest much less in nuclear energy, favoring renewable energy sources instead, than would a McCain presidency.
Palin made a big show of her ticket’s emphasis on “energy independence” – even ducking a question about bankruptcy laws to cheer for more offshore drilling – and McCain’s “all of the above” policy. Though she went through the motions, I have my doubts that she supports mandatory caps – or, frankly, that she supports any real meaningful action on climate change. Now if only the next debate moderator can get the presidential candidates arguing about climate policy…