The Veep Debate: That's Entertainment!

Palin preps at McCain's Sedona, Ariz. ranch 

Tonight's vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin promises to be great entertainment. In fact, I fully expect the Match-Up in Missouri to be the most riveting example of political theater since Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared together in Unity, N.H. wearing matching periwinkle attire and identical smile-like expressions. Like that display of post-primary togetherness, tonight's face-off will surely inspire a lot of sound and fury from the Beltway bloviators eager to overanalyze every aspect of the exchange: body language, sentence structure, truthiness and strategery. But in the end, I suspect that the Biden-Palin title bout will signify nothing--at least in electoral terms.

That's not to say the event won't be fun. It will be. It will be fun to watch Palin as she strives to prove that the "clueless hockey mom" caricature that's taken hold in recent weeks (Palin + Couric = Tina Fey) isn't true. And it will be fun to watch Biden as he struggles to overcome 35 years of unchecked public verbosity and keep his mouth from saying anything that could be construed as arrogant, sexist or downright dumb. It will certainly be more fun than watching  McCain and Obama morph into joyless automatons last week in Mississippi. There's dramatic tension here--a combustible dynamic. We don't know what will happen.

But the truth is, whatever happens, it won't have much bearing on the outcome in November. Expectations for Palin--the star of tonight's show--are laughably low. After a week in which she implied that Russia was planning to invade the United States, refused to reveal a single newspaper or magazine she liked to read, couldn't name any Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade and seemed to contradict her boss's position on attacking al Qaeda in Pakistan--among other things--people have stopped wondering whether she's qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency and started wondering whether she's qualified to open her mouth in public. The upside of this is that Palin shouldn't have much trouble exceeding expectations; in Alaska, she proved herself to be an able, appealing debater, and anyone who's watched her speak--pre-Couric--knows that she's a smart, savvy politician. The downside is that many people have already decided that Palin isn't experienced enough to be president--and that's not the kind of doubt a single debate performance can erase. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of voters say that Palin isn't ready to lead the free world, versus only 35 percent who say she is--a 27-point net negative swing since Sept. 7. What's more, about half of all voters worry about McCain taking office at age 72, up from about 40 percent in earlier polls. As a result, a full third of the electorate is now less likely to vote for the ticket because of Palin.

That's why tonight isn't likely to have much of an effect on McCain's chances. It's like the high jump. Clear a four-foot bar, even by a mile, and you get credit for clearing a four-foot bar--not for being a world-class athlete. With a strong performance, Palin can prove that she's not an incompetent speaker--and prevent herself from becoming a punchline (which is crucial to her political future). But she won't suddenly strike swing voters as qualified for the presidency. A bad performance, in turn, will confirm the public's doubts and cement McCain's recent slide in the polls--leaving the GOP exactly where it was when the day began (i.e. losing by seven or eight points). Republican and Democratic strategists agree that the market meltdown has permanently altered the contours of this year's presidential race. A spunky showing tonight--which I fully expect Palin to deliver--won't change that.

For Biden, the stakes are even lower. Tonight, the Delaware senator won't even attempt to "beat" Palin. There's simply no point. First, any mistakes she makes will prove far more damning than whatever case he might make against her. Second, making a case against her--even if it's fair--only gives McCain and Co. an opening to distract the press and the public with claims that Biden is an patronizing sexist pig (or whatever). Finally, Biden knows that voters aren't voting for or against Palin--or him for that matter. So there's simply no reason to undermine her. All of which points to one strategy: building Obama up, bringing McCain down--and ignoring the Mooseburger Queen of Wasilla. Ultimately, Biden has to do very little tonight to succeed. He doesn't have to prove that he's ready for the presidency; according to the ABC/Post poll, 70 percent of voters already think he is. He simply has to exceed the media's ridiculously low expectations by not making a gaffe. If he shows he can be an effective surrogate for Obama in the process--fire off a few anti-McCain zingers; appear experienced enough to make any contrast with Palin self-evident--that's merely icing on the cake. And even if Biden doesn't go gaffe-free--a strong possibility, given his know-it-all, foot-in-mouth tendencies--it's unlikely that Obama's sizable new polling lead will disappear. People won't forget their economic worries just because Joe Biden said something odd on TV.

Tonight, Chris Matthews and Co. will tell you that the St. Louis Showdown could change everything. Don't believe them. This evening's debate may produce a lot of Beltway bloviation--but it's unlikely to change the actual political landscape. So pop your popcorn, sip your soda--and sit back and enjoy the show.

UPDATE, 5:18 p.m.: One caveat: if Palin commits a major gaffe--not misstating a policy position or flubbing a fact but, say, staring in utter silence for 10 or more seconds--then it will be very difficult for the McCain campaign to recover. But I don't expect that to happen.