Biden's Dilemma

Biden is scheduled to debate Sarah Palin on October 2, 2008. There is only one little problem; how does Biden do it without looking like a bully?

Breaking the Fourth Wall: How Joe Biden Should Debate Sarah Palin

Many have commented on Joe Biden’s dilemma for Thursday’s debate. Assuming Sarah Palin reveals her unpreparedness – a safe assumption – Biden risks looking vicious if he attacks and patronizing if he doesn’t. This wouldn’t be a problem if Palin were at least minimally qualified, and it mightn’t be a problem if she were an unqualified man. But how to debate a likeable-but-unqualified woman in front of millions of undecided voters is a genuine dilemma.

The theory of risk communication says when you have a dilemma, share it. We picture Biden responding gently to the first two or three Palin howlers, then "going meta" in an appeal directly to the audience. Something like this:

"I want to do what actors call 'breaking the fourth wall' and step out of the debate for a minute. I want to share a dilemma with you who are watching.

"What do you do when you are cast as an equal against somebody who doesn't seem up to the job?

"Gov. Palin and I are both candidates for Vice President of the United States. I must treat her with the respect due to any major party candidate for high office. But it is hard to figure out the best way to show that respect.

"I have asked myself:

"Should I show respect by acting as if she knows what she's saying and belongs on this stage? That would mean responding with sharp, even biting, maybe even savage criticism each time she says something I think is not just misguided or unwise or empty ... but simply wrong, astoundingly uninformed.

"Or should I show respect by sympathizing because Gov. Palin is in a situation that is over her head? She unblinkingly let herself be thrust onto the national stage by Sen. McCain’s impetuous effort to 'change the game.' Should I treat her ignorance of national and international affairs gently, even at the risk of sounding condescending?

"During Gov. Palin’s first few comments, in my head I was thinking: 'Good God, that is so dangerously ignorant! I should blast her out of the water.' But I didn’t, because I thought that would lack respect. Instead, my effort to respond gently sounded condescending, even in my own ears.

"I really believe the most respectful thing is to respond to Gov. Palin the same way I would respond in a debate with Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama – respond with the assumption that Gov. Palin understands and means what she’s saying.

"My responses may sound like attacks. They will be – attacks on the actual content of Gov. Palin’s statements. They will not be personal attacks.

"I hope you will agree that this is the only kind of respect due to a candidate for the Vice Presidency of the United States – the respect of taking her words seriously – taking seriously the possibility that she could one day occupy the Oval Office."

And then he should attack.

Are we sure this is the right strategy? In a word, no. Certainly what we’ve drafted here is too long. And the last thing Biden wants to do is distract the post-debate buzz from his opponent’s unpreparedness to his unusual response to her unpreparedness. Maybe the dilemma-sharing needs to be leaked to the media a day or so beforehand instead. Somehow, Biden needs undecideds to understand that faced with an opponent who is out of her league, his only choices were "attack" and "patronize," and that "attack" was the more respectful of the two.

--Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard
The Peter Sandman Risk Communication Website

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