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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?

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.