During a post-debate program on KQED's Forum last week, a caller questioned one conservative pundit's comment that Governor Sarah Palin had "expertly" avoided answering moderator Gwen Ifill's questions. "When I was on the high school debating team, if you avoided answering the question," I paraphrase the listener, "that was a negative and you would lose points! So, how-come-is-it you give her credit for 'expertly' avoiding the questions?"
What the listener failed to understand is that political "debates" are hardly the same as the kind you might have engaged in when you were in high school. They are theatrical performances in which one's ability to convey predetermined messages--irrespective of the topic at hand--is greatly prized and highly rewarded. Avoiding-the-question is an important skill for politicians and diplomats--they do it all the time. While I am no fan of Ms. Palin I give her some credit for her ability in that regard, although her execution remains a bit clumsy.
In a preview of the debate for the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Joe Garofoli described the techniques of Bridging, Hedging, Hooking and Flagging -- all designed "to maximize performance." None of these tactics will win points for your debating team, but they're the stuff that political jousting is made of. "Bridging," says Garofoli is "Used to avoid answering directly and pivot to one's main messages. Example: 'I understand your point. The more important issue is ... (insert key message)' or 'No. I'd like to explain ... (insert key message).'"
I doubt Palin read Garofoli's unsolicited advice ("If you're stumped, don't be obvious about steering the questions back to a safe knowledge harbor"), but she did just that several times. Natural talent, I presume.
Another thing that counts on the stump but not so much in high school debates is body language. Gestures, tics and physical appearance can win or lose points with the electorate. Nixon perspired: bad. Gore scoffed and snorted: bad. George H.W. Bush checked his watch: bad.
Both Palin and Joe Biden used gestures well last week; she with her wagging head and hypnotic eye-contact, he by cupping his hand to his ear to visualize that "I haven't heard" the difference between McCain and Bush, pounding the lectern to underscore his side's determination to end the war, and pointing a finger for emphasis each time he said, "Let me say that again..."
I have to give the advantage to Biden, though -- and not only because I find Palin frightening. Her gestures underscored her positioning as "just plain folk," which I take to mean "inadequate for the job," while his helped to articulate his commitment, sincerity and strength. Her smiles were broad, but seemed disingenuous.
And her winks! My God, those WINKS!
For a commentary on those, please see "Sarah Palin, all-American cheerleader" by Tim Kingston and Lisa Moore from this morning's Chronicle on sfgate.com. I'm not sure Sarah's eye-squinches represent "the promise of power in exchange for sex," but they sure seem manipulative to those of us who don't consider the moose-hunter from Wasilla to be a hottie.