There was one player on the stage in St. Louis on Thursday night that really failed to meet the standard of professionalism and national leadership: moderator Gwen Ifill. Her questions often failed the first journalistic test: they failed to press the candidates to take or defend a stand, instead of letting them unload their talking points. One came across as just plain incoherent: "Governor, on another issue, interventionism, nuclear weapons. What should be the trigger, or should there be a trigger, when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?" That unfairly put Gov. Palin into a stumbling mode as she tried to figure out: what on Earth was bumbling Ifill trying to say?
While she offered a pile of liberal-tilting questions, Ifill offered Biden only one question from the right, about raising taxes on people making over $250,000 a year: "Why isn’t that class warfare?" Sadly, she didn’t let the sharp question stand. In the next sentence, before Biden could answer, she then went on to slam McCain’s health-care tax proposal as possibly "taking things out on the poor."
But the worst, most politician-indulging questions came at the end. This was the most distasteful question of the night: how would you abandon your running mate’s legacy if he croaked?
"Probably the biggest cliche about the vice-presidency is that it's a heartbeat away, everybody's waiting to see what would happen if the worst happened. How would -- you [Palin] disagree on some things from your principles, you disagree on drilling in Alaska, the National Wildlife Refuge, you [Biden] disagree on the surveillance law, at least you have in the past. How would a Biden administration be different from an Obama administration if that were to happen?"
Neither candidate was ever going to answer that directly, and each used it as a free pass to make their campaign pitches.
Here’s another Ifill question that was a free pass: tell us what your greatest weakness really is, as opposed to the conventional wisdom.
Let's talk conventional wisdom for a moment. The conventional wisdom, Governor Palin with you, is that your Achilles heel is that you lack experience. Your conventional wisdom against you is that your Achilles heel is that you lack discipline, Senator Biden. What is it really for you, Governor Palin? What is it really for you, Senator Biden?
If people wondered why the debate seemed sharp at the beginning, but lost focus and took on boilerplate barnacles at the end, blame the moderator for unfocused questions that didn’t press the candidates on the issues. Ifill obviously avoided abortion as a topic, since liberals are afraid that could be a strong point for Palin. She also avoided the question of judges and the courts, which could have really generated strong exchanges, as Biden declared his ardor in taking out the Robert Bork nomination.
Ifill seemed to run out of gas so badly that she asked the same question at the beginning and the end of the debate about ending divisiveness in Washington. At the beginning, she asked: "Senator Biden, how, as vice president, would you work to shrink this gap of polarization which has sprung up in Washington, which you both have spoken about here tonight?"
At the end, she repeated herself: "Let's come full circle. You both want to bring both sides together. You both talk about bipartisanship. Once again, we saw what happened this week in Washington. How do you change the tone, as vice president, as number-two?"
You could call it "full circle." Or you could it a complete waste of air time.
Her first question was too open-ended, on the week’s struggle over a bailout bill: "Was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?" But the first question is probably the best place for an open-ended question, as candidates get pleasantries out of the way.
Here’s one more badly constructed question from Ifill: "I'm curious about what you think starting with you Senator Biden. What's the greater threat, a nuclear Iran or an unstable Afghanistan?" Both candidates answered "both," a sign that it’s a bad question.
So how many questions leaned to the left? First, there was the hardball at Palin, before Biden could answer his:
"You proposed raising taxes on people who earn over $250,000 a year. The question for you is, why is that not class warfare and the same question for you, Governor Palin, is you have proposed a tax employer health benefits which some studies say would actually throw five million more people onto the roles of the uninsured. I want to know why that isn't taking things out on the poor?"
Ifill’s question on the subprime mess leaned left in avoiding any blame for government policy:
"Who do you think was at fault? I start with you, Governor Palin. Was it the greedy lenders? Was it the risky home-buyers who shouldn't have been buying a home in the first place? And what should you be doing about it?"
Ifill suggested John McCain was opposed to "debt-strapped mortage holders," not in favor of people being responsible for their borrowing and spending: "Last year, Congress passed a bill that would make it more difficult for debt-strapped mortgage-holders to declare bankruptcy, to get out from under that debt. This is something that John McCain supported. Would you have?"
On climate change, Ifill pressed Palin to admit it was man-made, the cockiest contention on the left, instead of asking a question about the potentially onerous regulation of a "solution" to our carbon footprint: "What is true and what is false about what we have heard, read, discussed, debated about the causes of climate change?"
The gay question to Biden clearly came from the left: "Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?"
The Iraq question focused on an exit strategy, and like most liberals, Ifill didn’t discuss a victory strategy, just an exit: "You both have sons who are in Iraq or on their way to Iraq. You, Governor Palin, have said that you would like to see a real clear plan for an exit strategy. What should that be, Governor?"
Ifill also came from the left at Biden on military matters, making him sound like a right-wing war supporter when it comes to humanitarian combat, and suggesting the American people are peaceniks: "Senator, you have quite a record, this is the next question here, of being an interventionist. You argued for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, initially in Iraq and Pakistan and now in Darfur, putting U.S. troops on the ground. Boots on the ground. Is this something the American public has the stomach for?"
Ifill also came across as tilting to the left in pressing Palin (twice) to respond to Biden’s charge that McCain wanted deregulation of health care, just like banking. She clearly suggested that Palin needed to respond to the charge, since it was so powerful.
The Commission on Presidential Debates ought to get a low grade for this debate. It selected a weak moderator, and then failed to respond – just like a bobbing and weaving politician – to the conflict-of-interest questions swirling around Ifill’s forthcoming book on the "Age of Obama."
Ifill should not get another invitation to moderate a national debate of this importance, not before tens of other qualified national journalists who have not been so honored.