How To Debate a Girl, and Win

Joe Biden can beat Sarah Palin by pretending she’s a man. And that he’s not Joe Biden.

This article was originally published in early September. Dahlia Lithwick recently chatted online with readers about this article; read the transcript.

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin

Dear Sen. Biden:

You have a problem. In less than a month, you will face off against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a vice-presidential debate in St. Louis, and were you anyone but Joe Biden, it would likely be a rout. Last week, Palin proved herself a charming, confident, and gifted reader of speeches. But that doesn’t change the fact that two years ago she was the mayor of a town of 6,000, crusading against dirty books at the local library. You are a six-term senator and chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. World leaders routinely friend you, unbidden, on Facebook (“Wait … Is this the Angela Merkel?”). World leaders had never heard of Gov. Palin until last Friday.

That’s your problem, Joe. Everyone expects you to win the debate, and to trounce her on the substance. But the rules for debating Gov. Palin are different. If you lecture her, you’ll be seen as a sexist bully. If you act too smart, you’ll be seen as a sexist bully. If you condescend to her, you’ll be seen as a sexist bully. So this longtime parliamentary debater (and longer-time female) is going to humbly offer you a few tips on how to debate a girl.

Sen. Biden, let’s be clear. Great Supreme Court oral advocates will tell you that a flawless oral argument will never win a case, but a bad argument can lose one. You have a similar problem. If you engage, fight, bicker, or bluster, you can lose this debate. Think Rick Lazio. So my advice, in a nutshell: Don’t lose it.

Your real problem with Palin is not actually going to be her gender. Assuming you don’t gaze fixedly at her breasts or ask her to fetch you a coffee, you probably won’t do anything truly career wrecking on the sexism front. Your real problem is that Palin is not a serious candidate. I don’t mean to suggest that she is not a serious person or even a seriously impressive first-term governor with real potential to shake up national politics. Nor do I want to imply for an instant that Palin is not a serious competitor. I just want to state here what you will be unable to say out loud at the debate: That by every obvious metric—experience, knowledge base, decades of public service, policy experience, understanding of the world—Palin is an unserious candidate for the vice presidency of the United States. And as any college debater will tell you, it’s far harder to beat a clumsy opponent than a good one. (That’s why you do better in your judiciary committee hearings with John Roberts than with Alberto Gonzales.) But if you even hint that Sarah Palin may be opining on the Israel-Palestinian peace process with something Piper pulled off Wikipedia that morning, you will look like a snotty professor lecturing an undergrad. And if you look like a snotty professor, you will come across as a sexist bully.

There is no easy way to tell you this, Joe Biden, but the surest way for Joe Biden to lose a debate against Sarah Palin is by being Joe Biden. If you are windy, pompous, unctuous, or pushy, you will come across as patronizing and condescending—the guy who puts the “boy” into “old boys’ network.” If you flirt and smirk and flatter (Did you truly tell an Ohio crowd you thought Palin was “good-looking”? Did you really introduce us to your wife, Jill, by leering that she is “drop-dead gorgeous”?), you’re going to sound like the creepy guy in the trench coat at the back of the porn theater. If you can manage to be your warm, amiable self, even if you’re going batshit on the inside, you will do fine.

And that’s why the best way for you to approach Sarah Palin will be to forget that she is a woman. Tell yourself that she is a machine in 3-inch heels that has been programmed to make you look brutish and aggressive. She will attack, and you will smile. She will make jokes, and you will laugh. Do whatever you need to do—take four Percocet, deploy Zen breathing techniques—to prevent yourself from attacking this woman. And do just as much not to pay attention to her. Even if she pulls out her breast pump during commercials, keep your eyes glazed over on the middle distance. No compliments. Don’t say you like her shoes. Just the facts, Joe.

You will need to match Palin point for point in the blue-collar-off. If she invokes her sister’s gas station, bring up your cousin’s Laundromat. (Try to locate one in the coming days, if you aren’t in possession of one already.) If she mentions the threshers, you need to see her the threshers and raise her the balers. If she mentions the Washington media elite that hate her, you can truthfully tell her they’ve been calling you a blowhard for decades.

Caution: Sarah Palin is funny. And it’s the kind of jeering Ann Coulter-funny that’s assuredly going to irritate the heck out of you. She’ll suggest you are a coward and unpatriotic and also (heh heh) that you are corrupt and dishonest. Keep your poker face. Poker face when she says you plan to raise taxes on the middle class. Poker face when she says she has plans to sell Barack Obama’s next celebrity memoir on eBay and give all the money to special-needs children. Don’t lunge (a la Lazio). Don’t sigh (a la Gore). Don’t roll your eyes (a la Where the Wild Things Are) or look longingly into the camera as if to plead “This is the best they could find for me?” Just nod sagely and refute logically. Get off a zinger if you can. (“You’re nice enough Sarah” does not constitute a zinger.) But you are not going to beat her at the victim game, or the regular-folks game, or the humor game. You have to beat her on the fact that you are qualified to be a heartbeat from the presidency and that in 10 years she may be, as well.

Take a page from Campbell Brown’s book and ask politely (and like you really want to know the answer and not just hear yourself say the question) what she learned while leading the Alaska National Guard into that war against Saskatchewan. But play to your strengths. Know stuff. Say it briefly. Don’t accuse her of not knowing things. Just know more. An insanely successful college debate friend told me recently that the way he won against women was by always behaving like they were men.

My senior year in college, I debated in Glasgow, Scotland, against men who all stood up when I entered the room. One guy called me a “little flower” in the  quarterfinals. Welshmen asked me to fetch coffee. What I learned from that experience was how deeply glad I was to live in a country where, for the most part, a woman can argue, tell jokes, kick ass, or get her ass kicked, just like a man. In 2008, in St. Louis, against a charming, cocky Alaska governor, that will only be truer. Thank goodness we live in a time and place in which nobody expects you to pull the chair out for your opponent or compliment her brooch, and nobody will be offended if you shake her hand firmly and pound her on national security. My best advice to you for dealing with Gov. Palin? Fight like a man. She will.

Dahlia Lithwick