Senator Joe Biden had a strong win over Governor Sarah Palin in the 2008 US vice-presidential debate.

Perhaps the most telling difference in this debate was Biden’s superior matter. He was able to strengthen his arguments through a very strong command of detail. Palin struggled from time to time and resorted to generalities. Take the example of Israel where Biden explained how the approach of the Bush Administration had strengthened Hamas and Hezbollah, while Palin could only declare broadly that she loved Israel.

Palin demonstrated knowledge about the voting records of Senators McCain, Obama and Biden. However Biden was able to counter these arguments by explaining the nuances of certain votes and why Palin’s assertions were not necessarily accurate. The tax votes of Senators McCain and Obama being an example.

On an issues basis, Biden was stronger on foreign and domestic policy. Biden was much stronger on the current economic problems and the need for change, while Palin was inconsistent: stronger regulations on one hand and small government on the other.

Palin turned energy into her strongest issue, playing on her Alaskan experience. However she was unable to capture the strength of McCain’s arguments from the first debate on the surge in Iraq and could not go with Biden on the detail of other international issues.

Biden balanced his detail-oriented approach with an effective, tight structure. His responses were enumerated or listed on a number of occasions. While lists often do not constitute good debating, Biden was at his most persuasive when he listed nine key differences (as he saw it) between the two parties (this was in response to the question of what agenda both candidates would pursue if they needed to step in as president). Structure was less important to Palin because she tended to deal in generalities and had less to say.

Both speakers were reasonably fluent throughout the debate. Palin’s personal story, emotional appeals and folksy (accessible) language was neutralised by Biden’s own person story, sincerity and warmth. Both candidates showed each other a lot of respect. Biden confined his strongest personal attacks to Bush, Cheney and McCain, while Palin confined her strongest attacks to Obama.

Some may say on the basis of low expectations that the debate helped Palin in a political sense. However, on an objective analysis of the debate according to the rules of debate, it was a strong win for Biden.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey