James Fallows and Katie Roiphe on Sarah Palin Winking Her Way Through the Debate

It's bad enough that some other people in New York
get to have stairs in their apartments. But twisty
ones? We're gonna hurl.
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Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, The Atlantic's James Fallows and Katie Roiphe, the author, most recently, of Uncommon Arrangements, discuss Sarah Palin's flirtatiousness last night, and which voters she was really winking at.

J.F.: There is no avoiding Topic One this morning. So … what did you think about The Debate?

K.R.: I was terrified last night, looking at Sarah Palin and thinking that she could be president. She can't string a sentence together. She can't talk in a grammatical or coherent way. But then people seem to think that she was fine. It seems like the bar is very low if we think a vice-president who did not hugely embarrass herself would be okay.

J.F.: I had a variant of that thought, which I'll lay out this way: If you were judging this as a normal "debate" — you know, one in which you expected the candidates to respond to the questions, and judged them on their engagement of each other's issues and general mastery of the material — obviously there would be no contest. Biden did very well — he has learned to discipline himself, even though he had a senatorial-sounding start — and Palin was just fitting what she had been prepped to say to some topic she thought was being discussed. But if you had in mind, "Is this as bad as the Katie Couric session?" you thought — okay, she is doing better. From that point of view, it seemed to me a "win" for both. You agree?

K.R.: I guess so, but I am not sure that is the standard by which we should be judging the debate. We should be looking at both of these candidates and imagining them in the role of president, if the worse should happen, and we should be calculating how intelligent and balanced they are. They should be judged on their mastery of the issues, not on a comparison with a comic and frightening television appearance the week before … don't you think?

J.F.: Sure — but the grizzled Washington vet in me says, "Hey, let's not get crazy here!" No, seriously, I DO think that the public assesses these things more in the way you are saying.

So, while this is more than we can discuss right now, I think this election (and in a mini way this debate) does interestingly raise two contending views of how voters behave. One is that "the people are in the end wise," which is the same faith that the jury system is based on. The other is "the people are in the end suckers for bread and circuses," which we've seen some evidence for. I think the first will prevail this year, which as you say is not such good news for the Palin approach.

K.R.: I hope you are right. I thought Palin's folksiness was overplayed this time. I mean, "doggone it"? Who says doggone it anymore? It was like she was trying so hard to be one of the people that she became a parody, and one likes to think that people will see through it. On the other hand, debates may not matter. I thought Kerry was better than Bush, and the people were as you said, suckers for bread and circuses…

J.F.: First, on whether the debates matter: the D.C. conventional wisdom is usually something to run away from, screaming. But in this one case, it may be right. Most people say that the V.P. debate was not a "game changer," in that Palin wasn't paralyzed à la the Couric interview and Biden didn't do anything wrong. So if we're back to the previous dynamics, that's good for Obama.

But let me get off that to ask you about the gender/sexual dynamics of the whole thing. What about THAT WINKING?!?!?

K.R.: I thought the winking was very strange. It reminded me of when she blew a kiss to the veteran at the Republican convention. She has certain feminine tics that again seem somehow mechanical, unnatural. I also thought that smile, kind of a feminine, automatic pretty-girl smile, she had while Biden was speaking was also off-putting.

J.F.: I find myself ill equipped to judge who this is aimed at and, more important, who exactly it is going to pay off with.  You remember back in the innocent early days when she was going to peel off some of the disaffected Hillary vote. I don't really see the homecoming-queen act paying off well there.  Is it just middle-aged men like me she's aiming at? ANY women at all — I mean, with this affect?

K.R.: I think the whole point of Sarah Palin is that she is supposed to seem like a "real person," and she doesn't. That's what bewilders me. I don't think women are going to fall for those sort of tricks. I was watching CNN and they were monitoring male and female responses, and it did seem that the men liked those feminine moments better than the women…

J.F.: I know what you mean and mainly agree. And here we wander off the tangled path of gender issues to the even more snarly one of class issues. I have some idea of your family background; mine is not exactly Wasilla, Alaska, but I know a lot of people sort of like Sarah Palin from my California high-school days, and I can imagine SOME people for whom this is going to seem "real." On an electoral basis, my assumption is that they are ones who would have been GOP voters anyway, so not much swing-vote effect. So, her "hockey mom" act I sort of recognize. The flirty stuff really does seem something from another time, though.

K.R.: One thing that was strange, from I suppose a woman's point of view, is how she tried to use her ignorance almost flirtatiously to her advantage, like when she said, "I have only been at this five weeks." It was a slightly Scarlett O'Hara move, rhetorically, and I think that sort of thing backfires in this context. People, both men and women, I imagine, want a confident vice-president, not a cute one.

J.F.: I think we are As One in this issue.  So let me ask about something else: You are much closer than I am to the, gasp, Youth of America who have been excited about the new possibilities with Obama.   He was more sparkly-new six months ago than he, inevitably, is now. And part of Palin's initial sizzle was simply that she was the newer new thing than Obama. What's the optimism/excitement level among your peers about the Obama on offer now?

K.R.: Well, the people I know are still excited about Obama, but maybe excited is the wrong word — they are desperate for him to win. One thing they said in the debate over and over was that this is the most important election of our lifetimes, and it feels that way. I think the enthusiasm for Obama now is deeper, more substantive, less about his looks and youth … The one age-related thing about the debate, though: Both Obama and Palin know to look at the camera, and McCain and Biden don't.

J.F.: Yes, agree entirely about Biden on camera. “TALK TO ME, JOE!” is what I wanted to say half the time. Along with, “STOP WINKING AT ME, SARAH.” But let me add one thing from my Chinese-based perspective parallel to what you say. While most people here aren't really THAT interested in the election — they know the policy toward them will be the same — they do think, like your friends, that it's a big, important choice for America. By which they mean, "more of the same" is probably not a winning hand for the U.S.