Tuned In

Tina Fey: Palin's Worst Enemy or Best Friend?

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Let’s hope Sarah Palin was watching this one with the sound off too. Tina Fey, playing Palin, and Amy Poehler, playing Katie Couric’s eyelashes, reprised SNL’s satire of the Vice presidential candidate Saturday night, capping off a week of bad media for the nominee.

It wasn’t the show-stopper that Fey’s first Palin skit was, but it did take the wicked tack of blending Palin’s actual interview answers into the script. If you saw the interview, it took a moment, as Fey’s Palin disappeared into the tundra on that meandering answer on the bailout, to figure where Real Palin ended and Parody Palin began.

It was also the best advance publicity possible for the Vice Presidential debate this Thursday, which stands a decent chance—for reasons both prosiac and specific to this race—of outdrawing the first Presidential debate in the ratings. Friday’s McCain-Obama match brought in a surprisingly middling crowd for a campaign that has repeatedly set viewing records. (It also inspired a relatively dull SNL skit—though the bit about playing the race card on North Korea was funny, if not especially timely.) But while you could come up with high-minded reasons—for instance, the focus on foreign policy in the midst of an economic crisis—the biggest factor, as I mentioned last week, was the fact that the debate was held on a Friday, the night with one of the week’s smallest television audiences.

Biden-Palin, on the other hand, is on Thursday. As in Must-See-TV. The biggest viewing night of TV any given week. This is why it’s the night networks schedule tentpole shows like CSI, Grey’s Anatomy and Survivor—and why the campaigns schedule the last night of their conventions then. If it needed any more promotion, the Couric interview, and Fey’s parody of it, took care of that.

It’s unknowable how much effect if any Fey’s impression has in the actual world of politics. As with a lot of SNL skits, it’s hard to tell whether it’s shaping or chasing the public impression of the candidate; and that candidate is, after all, the number-two spot on the ticket. But the other—also unknowable—question: does the impression hurt Real Palin, by cementing the idea that she’s unprepared for the job? Or does it help her, by helping to set expectations for the debate so low she can hardly help but clear them?

In the end, I think that how well Real Palin does in the debate is up to Real Palin, and where SNL effects things is by raising interesting and focusing attention; to the extent that there are stakes at all in a VP debate, the stakes are just that much greater now.

But I shouldn’t totally write off the ability of SNL to actually change the view of a candidate, at least in the details. Anecdotally, I’ve already read or heard people referencing the notion that Palin “can see Russia from [her] house.” (However dubious the claim is that Alaska’s proximity to Russia is a foreign-policy credential, the “house” line was Fey’s; the actual argument for Palin was that one can see Russian territory from a certain point in Alaska.)

Now, enough people have seen the actual version of Palin that I doubt they’ll tune in to the debate expecting to see Tina Fey’s. But if SNL is part of a larger set of factors that make Palin (who will probably, like Biden, spend her time attacking the opposing Presidential nominee) seem like a success if she is anything but an abject failure, then it may just have helped throw her a lifeline.

[Update: Actually, the bailout bill just failed, and the Dow is (currently) down 500 points. Maybe it’s time for Sarah Palin to suspend her campaign!]