The neoconservatives and their Republican allies did all they could after Thursday’s vice presidential debate to turn Sarah Palin’s peppy, personable but ultimately goofy performance into a turning point for another four-year lease on the White House.

But there was desperation in the air. Reading the neocons’ glowing reviews of Palin’s upbeat recitation of her talking points was a bit like watching a few diehard fans try to start a “wave” when the home team is hopelessly behind.

Still, try they did. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard wrote an article entitled “Comeback,” which read:

“The moment when Sarah Palin knew she was winning … came after the subject had turned to nuclear weapons. Palin had talked about nukes as a deterrent and said it was important to keep them out of the hands of dictators who are enemies of America. Then she turned to moderator Gwen Ifill and asked, ‘Can we talk about Afghanistan real quick?’

“Afghanistan? The impression Palin had left in television interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric was that she was ill-equipped to discuss issues like that. … But by that point in the debate – two-thirds the way through – Palin was brimming with self-confidence. She knew she could handle any issue likely to be thrown at her by Ifill. She knew [Joe] Biden would not outmatch her. So she purposely tackled an issue on which he was expected to have an advantage. …

“She insisted the ‘surge principles’ that had proved effective in Iraq would work in Afghanistan. Biden claimed the commanding general in Afghanistan disagreed. Then Palin said, no, the general didn't disagree, and she spelled out how ‘the counterinsurgency strategy’ favored by McCain (and her) would work.”

For all this gee-whiz boosterism, you might have expected Barnes to come dressed in a cheerleader outfit with pom-poms.

The reality of the debate, however, was quite different. When Ifill posed the question, “should there be a trigger when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?” – Palin offered one of her chillingly sophomoric answers:

“Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period. Our nuclear weaponry here in the U.S. is used as a deterrent. And that's a safe, stable way to use nuclear weaponry.

“But for those countries – North Korea, also, under Kim Jong Il – we have got to make sure that we're putting the economic sanctions on these countries and that we have friends and allies supporting us in this to make sure that leaders like Kim Jong Il and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad are not allowed to acquire, to proliferate, or to use those nuclear weapons. It is that important.”

While some Americans were still trying to get their brains around Palin’s bizarre use of the phrase “be-all, end-all” to refer to their mass incineration, the Alaska governor decided to shift back for a brief comment about Afghanistan.

She then let loose with a barrage of misinformation, starting with the slanderous canard that “Barack Obama had said that all we're doing in Afghanistan is air-raiding villages and killing civilians. And such a reckless, reckless comment and untrue comment, again, hurts our cause.”

Palin continued, “That's not what we're doing there. We're fighting terrorists, and we're securing democracy, and we're building schools for children there so that there is opportunity in that country, also. There will be a big difference there, and we will win in – in Afghanistan, also.”

Palin’s distortion about Obama derived from a statement that he made in 2007, calling for increased troop levels in Afghanistan so that the United States would not have to continue relying on aerial bombings that were killing civilians and angering Afghanis.

What he actually said was: "We've got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there." [AP, Aug. 14, 2007]

Moving On

After twisting Obama’s meaning, Palin moved on to one of her major gaffes of the night, in disputing Biden’s comment that the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan had said an Iraq-style “surge” strategy would not work well there.

“Well, first, McClellan did not say definitively the surge principles would not work in Afghanistan,” Palin said. “The geographic differences are huge but the counterinsurgency principles could work in Afghanistan. McClellan didn't say anything opposite of that.”

Palin’s reference to General McClellan, who was a top Union commander in the Civil War, left some listeners scratching their heads. She apparently meant General David McKiernan, who as Biden said had disputed the applicability of transferring the lessons from the Iraq “surge” to Afghanistan.

Though Barnes had tried to put some substance into his praise of Palin, other neocon writers concentrated on her style. For instance, David Brooks, a neocon columnist for the New York Times, wrote:

“It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona — the straight-talking mom from regular America — and it was immediately clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer moms, hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, main-streeters, ‘you betchas’ and ‘darn rights.’ Somewhere in heaven Norman Rockwell is smiling.

“With a bemused smile and a never-ending flow of words, she laid out her place on the ticket — as the fearless neighbor for the heartland bemused by the idiocies of Washington. Her perpetual smile served as foil to Biden’s senatorial seriousness.”

Yet, while Brooks may have been impressed, Palin may have reminded other viewers of a badly programmed Stepford Wife, who lacked fluency on complex issues both foreign and domestic – and kept circling back to scripted talking points that had been drilled into her brain by McCain’s neoconservative advisers, like Randy Scheunemann.

The more important question in evaluating the debate may be whether Americans – facing two open-ended wars and a major financial crisis – are looking for an updated version of George W. Bush, the proverbial regular fellow who you’d want to have a beer with, the faux populist who drops g’s from the end of gerunds and uses colloquialisms.

Palin’s “shout-out” to some Alaska school kids and other folksy chatter might have charmed some casual voters, but Palin’s casual style – masking a shallowness of knowledge – might have been unnerving to many other Americans who are in the mood for some gravitas.

In that way – contrary to the hopes of the neocon commentators – the real winner on Thursday night might have been Barack Obama, who selected the far more seasoned Biden who came across in the debate as a sage counselor or a prospective president.

Biden did get a bit tongue-tied at moments, but his mastery of policy details and his courtly manners sent a reassuring message to a nervous country.

Though Palin may not have melted down in the debate, neither did she display the experience and the knowledge to run the country.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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