The Gender Factor Is Overblown. From the second Sarah Palin was nominated, there’s been breathless talk about how Biden was boxed in: he couldn’t debate her too aggressively, or treat her too gently, because he would look like a sexist pig. I’m not sure whether this line of reasoning is more insulting to Palin or to voters, but in any case I think it’s outdated. First, Biden did debate a woman—Hillary Clinton—the whole while he was in the primaries; granted, it was not one-on-one, but neither was it particularly an issue. Second, people have repeatedly cited the example of George H. W. Bush, who was accused of being condescending to Geraldine Ferraro. But the issue there, if you go back and watch the debate, is that he actually was condescending (“Let me explain to you…”). Finally, the debate follows a troublesome series of interviews this past week between Palin and the nation’s only female network-news anchor. If Biden follows the same rules of decency advisable for debating a man—take your opponent seriously and don’t be a jerk—I doubt this will be an issue. (Which is not to say no one will try to make it an issue.)
The Format. Joe Biden talks a lot. This could be a serious liability in a debate with timed responses. We have heard this. We also heard this in 2004, about John Kerry, another Senate lion who loved to hold forth. I remember pundits saying that he would be thrown off balance by the red time-warning lights and reduced to incomprehensibility. In fact—probably because of the very discipline imposed by the time limits—Kerry put on an uncharacteristically crisp, succinct performance in his debates. He lost the election, yes, but not thanks to the debates, through which he appeared to make up ground on President Bush.
He’s Not Debating Sarah Palin. Not really; nor is she debating him. He is running against John McCain, and she is running against Barack Obama. If his handlers are worth anything, they have reminded him that he’s not there to knock down Gov. Palin. (However tempted, he should not ask her if she wants to use one of her lifelines.) But he should feel free to channel his attack-dog energy against McCain, as Palin certainly will against Obama.
Who the ____ Is Joe Biden? Don’t get me wrong: tonight is The Sarah Palin Show. But she’s not the only one with an opportunity to pleasantly surprise a nation that’s not very well acquainted with her. (Yeah, I know, Biden has been in the Senate a long time. So what? Tell me how much you know about Daniel Akaka.) Particularly since Palin was named, Biden’s been the Nowhere Man of 2008—which means he has at least some opportunity to impress the country with his knowledge and sense of humor. (If he avoids saying something totally batcrap crazy, anyway.)