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14 April 2010

TV debates: what Sarah Palin knew

Lessons for Brown, Cameron and Clegg? You betcha.

By Jon Bernstein

In the next issue of the New Statesman, Dominic Sandbrook has a terrific essay on the televised leaders’ debates, What Ronald Reagan knew. His hook is Reagan’s folksy, charm-laden, policy-lite performance against President Jimmy Carter in 1980 — “There you go again” and all that.

If the actor-turned-president Reagan is a role model, what (if anything) can Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg hope to learn from John McCain’s one-time running mate, Sarah Palin? Well, two things.

First, lower expectations to such an extent that anything other than a complete meltdown will be seen as a triumph. According to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s account of the 2008 presidential race, Game Change (aka Race of a Lifetime), “McCainworld was ecstatic” after the 2 October debate. “Palin had not only survived, but fought Biden to something like a draw,” they wrote, though not everyone saw it that way.

Second, avoid tricky words. Again, we’re grateful to Heilemann and Halperin for this account of the Republican’s debate prep:

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Over and over, Palin referred to Obama’s running mate as “Senator Obiden” — or was it “O’Biden”? — and the corrections from her team weren’t sticking. Finally, three staffers, practically in unison, suggested, Why don’t you just call him Joe?

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And that’s exactly what she did. As the two would-be VPs greet each other, you can just hear above the applause Palin eagerly asking Biden: “Hey, can I call you Joe?”

By the way, you can join the New Statesman team for some live blogging on Thursday night’s debate.