Thursday, October 02, 2008

What to expect at the debate tonight

Here's what Palin will try to do when she doesn't know the answer to a question (which is likely to be quite often.).

1) repeat back some of the words in the question to establish that they're "answering" it;
2) parry by steering the frame of their answers toward a talking point that bears some relation to the subect of the question;
3) spray some transitional buzzwords that help them segue from what they were asked to what they have prepared to say, and;
4) deliver the focus group-tested answer they originally planned, even if it's kind of a non-sequitur.

Here's an example in the Couric interviews, numbered for your convenience.

Well, let's see. [1]There's, of course in the great history of America there have been rulings, [2]that's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. [3]And there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, [4]where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there.* So you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but --

[1]Well, I could think of … any again, [4]that could be best dealt with on a more local level. [2]Maybe I would take issue with. [3]But, you know, as a mayor, and then as a governor and even as a vice president, if I'm so privileged to serve, [4]wouldn't be in a position of changing those things but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today.**

It's a good technique, but there were two problems in the Gibson and Palin interviews. First, Palin isn't all that good with the technique yet, but more importantly, she has so little experience and so little basic knowledge to fall back on that she simply can't handle probing follow up questions if her interviewer won't accept those non-answers.

Look for her to go to this technique early and often in the debate. It will be much more effective in the debate format, which is 90-second answers with no candidate-to-candidate questioning. The moderator probably won't try to badger her into actually answering questions, so she's likely to get away with it a lot.

And it might work for her. Biden, after all, will be armed mainly with facts (some of which he usually gets wrong) and talking points, while Palin is armed with extremely low expectations (she's done so badly in interviews that she'll get bonus points simply for not running sobbing off the stage) and a good deal of personal charm, plus her talking points.

So she might actually "win" the debate. Not in terms of substance -- she's not ready to hang with Biden there -- but in terms of perception, which is the only thing that really counts.

*Talking point: Roe v. Wade short-circuited the process by which Americans were seeking consensus on abortion and wrongly settled the issue by judicial fiat.
**Talking point: I won't necessarily immediately try to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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