Never underestimate the power of low expectations.
The first and only vice presidential debate last night was about precisely one issue: Whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would rise to the occasion or flub her way through as she has in the continuing saga of her Katie Couric interviews, which has seemed like political road kill.
For the last week, Palin has been coached - much like the beauty contestant she once was - to ace the biggest final of her brief adventure in national politics.
To her myriad critics, she most likely exceeded expectations, appearing knowledgeable on several subjects. The first-time governor showed that she can cram facts like a graduate student, fast with a quip and ready with the name of a warring faction or a general, though she mangled the name of the top military official in Afghanistan (it's McKiernan, not McClellan).
However, what Palin possessed in information was offset by a stridently folksy charm that tended to be more cheerleader than world leader. She gave "shout outs" to friends at home. She used phrases like "doggone it" and "Joe Six-Pack" and "Main Streeters like me." And she winked. Oh, did she wink.
In the sports-prone analogies of politics, the debate was a "do-or-die moment" for Palin. It was viewed as a boxing match between the ingenue, 44-year-old challenger, and the veteran Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., 65, a five-term senator who, as Palin said at a rally, "I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, the second grade."
Biden's dilemma was to appear authoritative without ever seeming patronizing. In their first-ever meeting on stage in St. Louis, Palin asked whether she could call her opponent, Joe. Biden addressed her as governor and never once attacked her directly. Instead, he took full aim at her running mate, calling him John and repeatedly saying "I love the man" before showing that, in so many ways, he most likely does not.
There was precisely one pure lob in the debate after Palin, once again, refused to "argue about the source of climate change." Biden responded: "I think it's clearly man-made."
Biden, famed for his verbosity and gift for gaffes, largely avoided them. When cornered, Palin has a talent for excessive answers signifying little. On questions about Israel and nuclear disarmament, she circled the wagons, offering hollow bromides. She did the aw-shucks stuff of "It's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider" or "at the end of the day, it's going to be OK."
Five weeks ago, most Americans were introduced to Palin for the first time. Not as the governor of Alaska, but potentially the next vice president of the United States. Even in these times of instant communication, this is an exceptionally short period for an electorate to become fully informed about its choices.
Since that moment of shock and awe, among a citizenry largely immune to surprise, the nation has entered its Palinolithic Period.
Do vice presidential debates matter? Dan Quayle was largely thought to have lost the 1988 "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" debate against Lloyd Bentsen. The Bush/Quayle ticket won almost 80 percent of the electoral vote.
But, at the end of the day, it isn't really going to be OK. It isn't OK to have a vice president who has to cram facts for a debate. It isn't OK for a vice president to keep bashing Washington or chanting "drill, baby, drill" as the answer to energy issues. And it isn't OK to have a vice president who, when she doesn't know the answer, invokes Ronald Reagan, boasts of her pride in being an American and, if all else fails, winks.