The Palin Strategy

Sarah Palin got a tough rap this week for flubbing questions in media interviews. Her solution tonight: not answering them at all.

Gwen Ifill nobly tried to keep both candidates on task. But Palin demonstrated a knack for answering the question she wanted to answer—not the one that was asked. At one point, Ifill asked Palin to respond to a comment by Sen. Biden on health care. “I would like to respond about the tax increases,” Palin pivoted and proceeded to accuse Obama of raising taxes 94 times. A minute later, Ifill prompted Palin to respond about McCain’s record of deregulation. Again, Palin resisted: “I’m still on the tax thing because I want to correct you on that again.” Biden looked exasperated, prompting Palin to say, “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.” In other words, screw your questions, I’ve memorized a message and gosh darn it, I’m going to get it across. She even managed to steer Ifill at one point: “Can we talk about Afghanistan real quick?” “Certainly,” said Ifill.

It wasn’t just Ifill she ignored—Biden got the cold shoulder, too. When Palin said Obama voted to cut off troop funding, Biden pointed out that McCain has voted against troop funding as well, because the legislation contained a timeline for withdrawal. She did not respond. Same when he pointed out that Obama’s tax plan raises taxes only on those who make more than $250,000, not families who make as little as $42,000, as Palin and McCain claimed. She had talking points but few responses to Biden’s rebuttals. One notable exception was the time she corrected Biden on “McClellan’s” argument that counterinsurgency could work in Afghanistan as it has worked in Iraq. Biden conceded the point but didn’t mention that his name is actually Gen. McKiernan.

The strategy worked. Palin kept the conversation on her turf, avoided follow-ups, and came across both forceful and charming. She addressed the camera directly—part of the “straight to the American people” message—instead of addressing Biden (although she did turn his way to inform him, “Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq”). She’s also a master of the tonal pivot, going from beaming smile to sly grin to dead serious all within the same answer. The format helped, too. The two-minute rebuttal periods didn’t produce much cross-chatter, and Ifill didn’t ask many follow-up questions.

In her closing statement, Palin said she liked the debate because “I like to answer these questions without the filter of the mainstream media.” If by “filter” she means Couric-style follow-ups, requests for clarification, and other obstacles to the subjects she came to talk about, she’s right. This debate was a great medium for her.