[eDebate] How To Debate a Girl, and Win...According to Slate
Wed Sep 10 23:21:51 CDT 2008
The article fails to mention an important X factor (hat tip to ET):
the moderator is PBS' Gwen Ifill, who I think may have the most
difficult task of the three. I hope the structure of the debate allows
her significant flexibility to ask follow-up questions of both
candidates, as that is where Senator Biden is likely to outperform
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.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Updated Monday, Sept. 8, 2008, at 7:00 AM ET
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
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 is a Slate senior editor.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2199363/
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