Some must-see commentary from Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, a guy I consider to be one of the best foreign policy analysts in the country. The short version: The problem with Sarah Palin isn’t that she doesn’t know the answers, it’s that she doesn’t even understand the questions.
As far as tonight’s debate is concerned, my pre-game analysis boils down to this: I think Palin will be okay to the extent that she isn’t asked any follow-up questions. Anytime she gets pressed for specifics or asked to demonstrate an understanding deeper than talking points, she falls apart. I’m sure she’s been preparing hard this week, but I’d guess that most of her studying has been memorizing answers and practicing debating tricks to get out of jams, not understanding issues. If she finds herself in the crosshairs of a question she hasn’t prepared a scripted answer for and can’t find a way out of, it’ll be ugly.
The debate format is pretty structured, which means Biden won’t be able to challenge her directly. It’ll be up to moderator Gwen Ifill whether to press Palin off her script or not. Palin’s performance also depends on whether Ifill stays on comfortable turf (hot-button social issues, energy, Alaska, Sarah Palin) or if she forces Palin onto less familiar territory (foreign policy, domestic policy, American history, federal government).
If Ifill takes it easy on her, Palin will survive. She’ll survive, but she won’t look good doing it. No matter what happens, whether she avoids an earth-shattering gaffe or not, the contrast between Biden’s grasp of the issues and Palin’s will be stark. There’s simply no way for Palin to stand on a stage for 90 minutes with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and fake her way through the whole thing. The best she can hope for tonight is to get in a few good shots at Barack Obama and to make no other major news. Worst case scenario, and I say this in all seriousness, she effectively ends the race. The McCain campaign– sinking in the polls since the start of the financial crisis– will lose more ground tonight and they know it. The only question is how much.