Joe’s Big Show

How the soft bigotry of low expectations paints a false picture

Earlier today, Megan cautioned against resisting the spin about tonight’s debate. “The McCain campaign, inside and outside and around Wash U’s spin room, will be trying its hardest to frame the stories that emerge from tonight’s debate not around Sarah Palin, but around Joe Biden,” she wrote.

Too true, but unfortunately, the mighty media may be too blame for giving McCain the ammo to make their case.

On Day One, when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, many posed the question about how Joe Biden would have to behave in the vice-presidential debate.

Just hours after the announcement was made, TNR’s Michelle Cottle made this observation, echoed all over the media:

“In a debate with Biden over—well, just about anything that doesn’t directly involve the state of Alaska—Palin is almost certain to get her clock cleaned.

But! Biden nonetheless needs to tread carefully and show more self-control and finesse than he is normally known for. Palin may be a varmint-hunting, moose-stew-guzzling NRA lifer, but she is still a woman—and an exceedingly delicate, feminine looking one at that.”

Immediately, the scene was set: Joe Biden has to do something concerted, special, purposeful to avoid looking like a big, sexist brute. He would have to pull his punches, tread lightly, and avoid looking like a bully.

Of course, the act of speculating about Biden’s not-yet-nascent gaffes implies that it is possible, even likely, that he would fall victim to these mistakes.

And there’s been no shortage of advice for Biden on how to prevail over Palin, without falling into the bear trap that the media themselves set for him.

“Biden needs to say nothing — a great challenge for him. It will be hard for him to show subtle expertise without looking smug, to flaunt his experience without talking too much,” said the Washington Post.

“But he can come off as a blowhard - an especially dislikable trait when juxtaposed with a charming woman. The gender sensibilities still resonate, and he cannot afford to either patronize or browbeat,” offered The Dallas Morning News.

And this from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “Everyone will be on alert for overbearing, condescending or patronizing moments. People are lying in wait to call you sexist, so restrain yourself.”

What a bummer. Instead of focusing on the substance of the debate—Joe Biden’s Senate record, Palin’s experience as mayor and governor—this framing brings undue attention to appearances and makes every viewer primed to seek out any hint of sexism and bullyism, where none might actually exist.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal published a list of tough, specific questions for Biden. For example, “Also, former Vice President Al Gore has suggested transitioning to ‘100% zero-carbon electricity in 10 years.’ Given that the U.S. gets 50% of its electricity generating power from coal, but only 2.3% from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, is Mr. Gore’s timetable plausible or desirable?”

Good, substantive questions like these could elicit good, substantive answers from both Biden and Palin. But if everybody tunes in for the static, they might just miss the point of the program.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.