In the days leading up to last night's presidential debate, I heard many Democrats gleefully anticipating a gruesome self-destruction on the part of Sarah Palin. "The comedy event of the year," they called it, as they prepared debate watching parties, as if the election of the President of the United States were on a par with the Superbowl or the finale of American Idol.
Whenever I heard these sentiments, I simply reminded them, "Has anything in this election gone as you've expected?"
Watching the debate was suspenseful experience; watching the exchanges, it was clear that the possibility of a meltdown lurked in the background. Yet at the end of the night, both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin had avoided disaster, an outcome that has to be taken as a positive for the McCain campaign, given the doubts about Palin that her disastrous series of interviews with CBS News had raised.
Unfortunately for McCain, while Palin avoided disaster, she was unable to do the one thing he needs most: change the dynamic of the campaign.
Palin scored points by attacking Barack Obama with the same arguments she and McCain have been using for weeks. There's an obvious problem with those arguments...no, not that they are untrue, though there are plenty of liberal bloggers who will gladly explain why they are. The problem is that those arguments haven't been working. Just look at the polls.
More of the same, delivered with spunk, is not going to change the campaign dynamic.
Here's the fundamental problem for McCain: the disastrous performance of the Bush Administration has soured the American people on the Republican party. Democratic registrations are up, Republican registrations are down.
McCain's only hope was that A) Democrats would refuse to vote for Barack Obama, and B) independents would prefer McCain to Obama.
At this point, it looks like (A) is off the table. Obama's triumphant performance at the Democratic convention nixed that issue. That leaves the independents.
While Sarah Palin has successfully shored up the Republican base, McCain has utterly failed to take advantage of the Palin surge. What he should have done was immediately tack hard to the center, emphasizing his differences from the Republican party line (trusting in Palinmania to keep them loyal...besides, none of the base was every going to vote Obama).
What he did instead was bounce from issue to issue, flip-flopping on a daily basis, and getting gobsmacked by an economic crisis for which he should have been better prepared.
Last night was just another lost opportunity; when presented with her last, best chance to make a statement on the national stage, rather than articulating a vision for why McCain-Palin would make America great, instead focused on previously tried-and-failed attacks on Obama.
And while I'm still of the opinion that the Palin pick represented McCain's only shot at victory, and while her performance beat expectations, her choppy, often disjointed delivery failed to showcase the natural charisma and homespun eloquence that might have carried the day.
Yet while McCain-Palin is a lost cause, last night was an important step for the future. Palin-Romney in 2012, anyone?