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Forum editorial: VP debate more than a sideshow

Today's issue: Vice presidential candidates debate tonight. Our position: One of them will be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. If the forecasts are right, tonight's debate between vice presidential candidates will be a television ratings bl...

Today's issue: Vice presidential candidates debate tonight.

Our position: One of them will be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

If the forecasts are right, tonight's debate between vice presidential candidates will be a television ratings blockbuster, possibly topping the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joseph Biden are in St. Louis for the only VP debate of the campaign.

Unfortunately, the audience will be large not because of the substance (if there is any) of the debate, but rather for entertainment value. Spurred by the national media's talking heads, who should know better, viewers will be hoping for a train wreck. Democrats would love to see Alaska Gov. Palin continue the embarrassing performance she's given during recent (and few) broadcast interviews. Republicans will be salivating for Delaware Sen. Biden to live up to his gaffe-a-minute, talk-too-much reputation.

Well, maybe it's time to get serious. After all, history shows that vice presidents can end up in the Oval Office when something happens to presidents. Think Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Teddy Roosevelt. It happens. The old reminder that a vice president is "only a heartbeat" away from the presidency is true.

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Much of the initial bloom is off the Palin rose. Her hockey-mom, one-of-us persona is attractive, but the more Americans get to know about her, the dimmer the bloom. This week even some Republicans were quietly urging she be replaced because she's doing John McCain more harm than good. That's a stretch, at best. Palin's fans are legion and motivated. At this point, she is a huge asset for McCain.

Biden's experience is overshadowed somewhat by verbosity that often strays to eyes-glaze-over lectures. There was never any bloom on his rose. He's been around the presidential track twice without much success either time. As a vice presidential candidate he brings little excitement to the Barack Obama ticket because the 30-year veteran of the Senate is very well-known. Too well-known.

The debaters face formidable individual challenges. Palin, who will benefit from low expectations, has to do better than a cutsey "I'll get back to you on that." Biden has to keep in check his tendency to go off in seven directions at once and never make a clear point.

A little advice from the heartland:

Palin's strength is a sense that she is a no-nonsense reformer. She can burnish that image by answering gotcha questions about obscure foreign policy matters by simply saying, "I don't know, but I'm a quick study and have a lot to learn." Even her harshest critics might appreciate a little honesty.

Biden's obvious strength is his service in the Senate, where he earned a reputation as a serious foreign policy and defense expert. But his habit of preaching from on high might be construed as condescending if he characterizes Palin as unprepared for high office. He's a tough debater, but toughness might not work against the wit and charm of the right wing's favorite moose hunter.

Viewers have a job, too. They should try to look through the hype and posturing in order to get some sense that the candidates are prepared to be "a heartbeat away" from the presidency.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board.

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