The debate concluded with a tug-of-war over America's future.
The campaign played out in microcosm last night, and it had almost nothing to do with personalities. The week’s worth of expectation-games was entertaining, but it rather masked the fundamental point about this debate, one that applies to the election itself: the Republican candidate has no positive object. Of Palin last night as of McCain as a whole, the Republicans in this election have (through circumstance and choice) aggressively pursued only the negative object, their primary directive being not to go down in flames.
Palin had two key objectives (debate transcript is here):
1) Do not end the campaign. There was a very real, albeit slim, chance that Palin would do so badly that it would indict McCain’s judgment beyond redemption. That didn’t happen.
2) Keep the base from deserting. Contrary to some media opinion, Palin’s job since her nomination has been to shore up McCain’s support with the Republican base, with whom he has had a deeply uneasy relationship. To the extent that the base was watching, she did that, among other things fielding a question on extending rights to same-sex couples and throwing back a virtual philippic against gay-marriage.
Both of these were negative objects – preventing damage from which the McCain campaign could not recover. Note that she didn’t go after undecided voters who live in the middle of the political spectrum; while the ‘maverick’ line is aimed at them, the social conservatism, ‘flag of surrender’, and anti-tax, get-the-government-off-our-backs lines were pure red meat for the base (and, to be fair, for undecided voters circa 1994).
Biden also had two goals:
1) Do not screw it up. His standard was slightly better than Palin’s, in that there was no real discussion of Biden saying something so outlandish that the campaign would implode, but a gaffe would have been a distraction. He did not make one.
2) Win some undecided voters. This is going to be hard to measure, but the kitchen-table (which got about as much play last night as Iran) material was aimed squarely at undecideds in battlegrounds. My evidence here is anecdotal, but I know of instances where previously undecided, white voters in those states have been convinced to vote for Obama by Joe Biden – this is probably due to some combination of age and race. Much of his appeal to them last night was genuine A-material, including his moving reference to the tragedy at the beginning of his career, his indictment of McCain-as-maverick, and his forceful conclusion.
That has been the campaign all over – the Democrat able to pursue undecided voters in key states while the Republican has been obliged to scurry around defending voters and states that should have been solidly in the Republican camp from the word ‘go’. Last night Palin achieved the minimal negative object, and it appears that nationally McCain has as well – an Obama blowout is still on the table, but it won’t be 1964. But the price of securing that negative object has been time and resources that could have been spent pursuing the positive object (note that the biggest story of the day is the McCain campaign’s withdrawal from Michigan), and the ultimate cost for the McCain/Palin ticket will be the election.