By any objective standards Sarah Palin did a decent job in last Thursday's vice-presidential debates.
Considering how low the expectations were going into the debate, she did a great job, calming the nerves of a lot of conservatives who had worried themselves sick over the previous two weeks when Palin had looked like a blithering idiot.
Instead, she was cogent and engaging, without any major gaffes (Biden didn't make any, either). The cram course she'd gotten in the previous week obviously paid off.
She had a few problems. On several occasions, she didn't even attempt to answer the question asked, instead falling back on her strength, energy policy, and talking about that instead. That's an old Karl Rove trick. If you don't like the question, answer some other question you wish had been asked. You'll still get the sound bite, and it will be on a subject that's one of your strengths.
I didn't think either candidate did a stunning job on the questions concerning the economy. But it's such a complex issue simple answers aren't going to really be there in the first place, and anybody who's got a simple answer probably doesn't understand what's going on.
When it came to foreign policy, which is one of Biden's strengths, he demonstrated his clear expertise on the subject. No question he knew more about the subject than Palin. But Palin didn't fold, either. She'd obviously learned a lot during her week-long cram session, and even was able to pronounce correctly the name of Iran's president, something McCain hadn't been able to do (although it fairness to McCain, it's an extremely difficult name to pronounce even if you know what it's supposed to sound like). She got the name of the top general in Afghanistan wrong, calling him McClellan, but it didn't seem to be a serious gaffe (McClellan was a Civil War general who's nickname was "Little Mac" so maybe it was just a freudian tie-in to her boss).
No question in my mind Biden won the section of the debate on foreign policy, but give credit to Palin for at least looking competent on the subject. She didn't do anything to hurt McCain.
Both candidates talked about their families in trying to make the current economic crisis personal, to bring it down from the relatively abstract level of Wall Street to the more human level of Main Street. Both did well, I thought, in that respect, and both have interesting family histories. But maybe because I was a single parent myself, I related better to Biden's comments. I'm convinced there's no tougher job on this planet than being a single parent.
Overall, I actually thought Thursday's debate was better than the first Obama/McCain debate During the first presidential debate, the questions were a little more open ended, allowing the candidates an opportunity to stretch, although neither really did so. The vice-presidential debate featured much more direct, focused questions and as a result I think we got a much better distinction between the policy philosophies of the two candidate teams. (Note: Tuesday night's presidential debate, which occurred after our deadline, was much better than the first, with both candidates doing a good job laying out more details of their policies).
Ultimately, the question in the vice presidential debate was which candidate you think would make a better president if they were suddenly elevated to the White House, which historically happens just about one in every four and a half presidencies (eight out of 35 elected presidents for 43 total administrations). Palin may have competently answered the questions, but Biden looked much, much more like presidential timber. In that respect alone, Biden probably won the debate.
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Oil policy is one of the big differences between the two candidate teams, so it might be worthwhile to look at some of the facts.
According to U.S. government figures (compiled at the end of 2007), the United States produces on average about 8.5 million barrels of oil a day, but consumes about 21 million barrels a day. Of that total, we import about 13.5 million barrels a day, while exporting about 1 million barrels a day (or about 12 percent of our production). The biggest share of the oil we exported went to Mexico, Canada, Chile, Singapore and Brazil.
At one time, in the late 1980s, Palin's home state of Alaska produced 2 million barrels a day. Whatever couldn't be handled by west coast refineries (no one seems to know exactly how much), went overseas, mainly to Japan and China. Today, however, the oil companies have reduced production in Alaska to under 750,000 barrels a day (all going to west coast refineries), which makes you wonder why the oil companies want to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) fields in the first place, since they're not pumping at anywhere near capacity from the existing Alaskan fields.
That reduced production still generates $2 billion in royalty payments to the Alaskan state government alone, which is why taxes are so low there and it's not strapped for infrastructure improvements like Idaho or most of the other states in the nation are (with more than twice the population of Alaska, Idaho's FY09 budget is just under $3 billion total).
Untapped proven oil reserves in the United States amount to about 22 billion barrels.
During the 1973 Arab oil embargo (our first warning about energy dependency) Congress slapped a ban on exporting oil produced in the United States. In 1995, Alaska's senators got the heavily GOP-controlled Congress to remove that ban. No one on either side seems to be talking about reinstating it right now, even though it would automatically and immediately improve oil supplies in the United States by 5 percent.
Essentially, Obama/Biden want to focus U.S. energy policy on the development of alternative fuels, weaning us away from our dependence on foreign oil at first and ultimately all oil. McCain/Palin want to increase the supply of oil to drive prices down, a solution that while it may lack long-range foresight, they believe will provide more immediate relief to consumers, who care more about today's household budget than one 20-30 years down the road.
But will it? Somehow I have a feeling demand for oil from places like India and China is going to rise faster than supplies no matter how much we drill, and unless we ban exports of oil again I'll bet a significant share of it gets sold overseas.
The first quarter of this year, just before the oil crisis hit American consumers in the wallet at the gas pump, set a record for U.S. oil exports, at 1.6 million barrels a day. So just before the "supply crisis" hit us, U.S. oil companies were sending an unprecedented amount of domestic oil overseas.
Furthermore, while I don't have any basic problems with off-shore oil drilling, the research I've done has turned up some interesting facts.
The oil industry itself admits that, if the leases for the offshore oil they are hoping to open were approved today, it would be 3-5 years from the moment they start to drill before the first oil started coming out of the wells.
But it would take about two years for the paperwork to clear before the government could actually begin auctioning off the leases to the highest bidder, which could include China and other countries, who would be allowed to bid. There is nothing in the current proposal (and it may not be legal under current federal bidding law to do it anyway) to prevent some other country from winning the bids and sending all the extra oil overseas.
In addition, according to industry sources, every single drilling ship in the world -- highly specialized and very expensive pieces of equipment -- is currently booked solid for the next five years. Add the three years to begin production to that and you get a minimum of eight years before we see a drop. Under McCain/Palin's best dreams, they'd be out of office before a single gallon hit the pump.
And finally, of all the known offshore reserves, 80 percent of them are already leased, but the oil companies that hold those leases are producing oil on only a quarter of all the leased oil fields. They already have the capability to add an extra 300 percent to their production from offshore oil fields without adding any more leases.
What is it they want about access to the other 20 percent of the known offshore reserves? Why are McCain/Palin and the GOP pushing this so hard? Beyond pure politics, or the greed of oil companies who just want to lock up the reserves, I can't see where this should be half the issue it has become.