By Will Harper
A lot of media critics are gushing over moderator Gwen Ifill’s impartial performance at last night’s veep debate, but if you ask me, she blew it.
I lost count how many times Sarah Palin dodged or ignored questions without getting called on it. While many blamed the horrible time-constrained debate format rather than Ifill — former SF Weekly editor Jack Shafer even gave her a pass prior to the event — the truth is that Ifill let Palin stick to her talking points.
At one point Biden grew so irritated he even seemed to nudge the moderator for a little help: "Gwen, the governor did not answer the question about deregulation ..." So Ifill then asked Palin to respond. Her response? Another dodge:
IFILL: Would you like to have an opportunity to answer that before we move on?
PALIN: I'm still on the tax thing because I want to correct you on that again. And I want to let you know what I did as a mayor and as a governor. And 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.
It was a remarkable — and disturbing — statement. Basically, she was saying she didn't need to answer no stinkin' questions from the likes of the liberal elite, goshdarnit youbetcha.
Ifill just let it go, and announced it was time to move onto the next question — even though Palin hadn't answered the one before.
The difference between Palin's performance last night and in her interviews with Katie Couric is amazing. As others have pointed out, Palin did reasonably well last night because she didn't have to contend with follow-up questions. Many of her gaffes in her interview with Couric came when the news anchor pressed for specifics (such as naming a Supreme Court decision besides Roe v. Wade she disagreed with).
It's not as if Ifill was unable to ask follow-ups. In fact, Ifill did confront Palin when the Alaska governor didn't answer whether she'd have to rethink some campaign promises after the recent financial meltdown on Wall Street. Otherwise, though, Ifill just seemed to let the candidate obfuscate at will.
You have to wonder whether Ifill was reluctant to push Palin after conservatives questioned her objectivity this week because she's writing a book called Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
If Ifill challenged the hockey mom more aggressively on some of her B.S., you can imagine the right-wing pundits would be screaming bloody murder today.
Whatever the case, Ifill was disappointing, even though, yes, the lame format didn't help.
Just to be clear, I think Ifill is a pro, and the right-wing attacks on her neutrality before the debate were kinda silly. She's no Keith Olbermann. That said, she probably should have stepped aside and let someone else without baggage act as moderator. Journalists under attack tend to bend over backward to prove they're fair; in the process, they pull punches. This was the one and only veep debate, and the public would have been better served with someone not afraid to be a total asshole asking the questions.
P.S. Another recent article in Slate makes the interesting point that until 12 years ago, candidates were usually questioned by a panel of journalists instead of one lonely moderator:
Perhaps the most famous moment in a vice-presidential debate was partially the product of planning: The panelists in 1988 agreed beforehand to ensure that one another's questions were answered completely. As a result, they pressed Dan Quayle about his preparation for the vice presidency — prompting him to compare himself to John F. Kennedy and inspiring Lloyd Bentsen's famous retort.