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The significance of the pitch

Foreign policy expert Phyllis Bennis analyzes the importance of the language used by the VP hopefuls

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to our continuing coverage of the vice presidential debate. Joining us now from Washington to discuss the foreign policy portion is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, director of the New Internationalism Project, and author of the newly released Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Welcome, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Thanks very much. Great to be with you tonight.

JAY: So what’s your take on the foreign policy part of the debate?

BENNIS: Well, it was actually very interesting. Listening to the foreign policy discussions, you realize what we’ve known all along, that while the rhetoric of the two sides is very, very different, the very aggressive rhetoric of Sarah Palin, in this case, but of the McCain camp in general, versus the much more nuanced pro-diplomacy rhetoric of the Obama administration that would be, but at the same time you see not so much difference in their actual policies. When you cut through the rhetorical slant, one very aggressive, the other seemingly more moderate and focused on diplomacy, what they actually call for is less different than one might hope for. On the question, for example, of Iraq, the first foreign policy issue that they took up, we heard from Biden a repeat of the Obama 16-month exit plan. And that was immediately answered by Palin as a white flag of surrender, to which Biden then responded again, "Well, I didn’t hear an exit plan from you at all." Now, the problem with that, it makes it seem as though there’s a really profound difference between the two candidates. In fact, both intend, both would keep huge numbers of US troops occupying Iraq for the indefinite future. It’s not completely the same, certainly. Obama would pull out about half the troops that are there of the 150,000, but he would leave behind somewhere up to 80,000 troops for an indefinite period.

JAY: Right.

BENNIS: The McCain campaign, Sarah Palin, of course, stand for keeping all the troops and perhaps even more in Iraq in a permanent occupation, which, of course, the more troops you have, the more problems it creates, the more death and destruction they cause and they are threatened with themselves. So it’s not insignificant, the difference between keeping 150,000 and keeping 80,000.

JAY: I thought there was one point in the debate that perhaps Biden answered more clearly than Obama did, taking on this idea of victory. Palin continued the McCain mantra that the real issue is victory. And this time Biden answered by saying, "We’re against preemptive war and we’re against regime change as a policy," which gives a little more substance that it’s not just about victory. Do you think that’s significant?

BENNIS: Well, it’s hard to know. Certainly at the rhetorical level it’s one more example of a very profound difference in how they talk about war, how they understand war, and how they mobilize support for war, and that can be very important in terms of does the continuing war gain support or lose support. And I think that that perhaps is more significant at the level of discourse, at the level of changing how people think about it, or keeping people thinking the same thing. The problem is, again, neither side actually called for ending the war, meaning pulling out all the troops. So that was where there was more of a rhetorical gap than I think there would be a gap on the ground. Similarly, with Israel-Palestine, we heard first from Palin. She supports a two-state solution. She supports the new initiatives of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Israel is the best ally we’ve ever had. Israel is a peace-loving nation. We can never allow a second Holocaust. She went on at quite some length. And then, when Biden answered, he began with the statement, "No one in the Senate has been more pro-Israeli than I am," which he felt he had to say to give him credibility to say the next point, which was, "I don’t see any difference between the McCain policy and the policy of the Bush administration that has failed." I think that’s true: there is very little daylight between the McCain and Bush policies. The problem is it’s not clear on Israel-Palestine what Obama-Biden would do differently. So, again, we have a rather dramatic shift in the rhetoric, but less clarity on what the shift on the ground would look like.

JAY: Do you think Palin got away with this "Oh, doggone, you’re just talking about the past again"? I mean, did she get away with completely distancing themselves from the Bush administration with that kind of stuff? Or did people see through it, do you think?

BENNIS: You know, it’s hard to know. On the station that I was watching, they were running a focus group simultaneously that were being monitored, wired in some way, showing where there was a response, positive or negative, and they divided it between the men and the women in the focus group. And Palin, in those instances where she did that sort of "Tsk, there you go again," trying to channel Ronald Reagan, it seemed—not very successfully, in my view—neither the men nor the women, although the women were more antagonistic to it, the men were a little bit open to it. But in both cases, both genders, the support went down when Palin tried that sort of folksy, "Oh, there you go again, talking about the past again, and we want to talk about the future." I don’t think that was selling very well. I don’t think that’s going to work very well. It may work, unfortunately, in my view; it may work that people start to take seriously this notion that McCain and Palin are running against the Bush administration, despite the reality of McCain’s 30 years in office, his last 20 years in the Senate, his last 5 years of voting 90 percent in support of Bush policies, of Bush initiatives. To claim that he’s a maverick that is going there to reform things, it boggles the mind. You know, it’s hard to imagine. And yet, they are clearly running against the Bush administration, if not against Bush policies. That’s the part that makes it very tricky, and I don’t know that she was able to convince people that, on the one hand, "We’re different. We don’t like what they stand for," and yet the policies that they’re putting forward, particularly in foreign policy, are virtually indistinguishable from the policies of the Bush administration.

JAY: Well, if people are listening at all to the substance, it would seem to me that they’re going to have a problem with someone who says it doesn’t really matter what causes climate change—we still need to deal with it. And I thought Biden actually had an effective answer: "Well, you can’t come up with an answer if you don’t know what the cause is." And the same issue is if you don’t know what the last eight years was about and you just want to pretend like it never happened, then the same issue: how do you come up with solutions? There are thinking people out there who may be leaning one way or the other, but they’re not going to be idiots.

BENNIS: No, they’re not going to be idiots, and I don’t know that Sarah Palin convinced any who did not already agree with her. The problem was she was facing a very low bar to step over. All she had to do was not make a fool of herself and she emerges as the winner, because the expectation was that at best she was going to repeat the embarrassing kind of interview that she did with CBS News that’s been broadcast over the last several days, where her inability to understand questions, to answer questions, her clear lack of information about any of the important issues facing our country, was very overt. The cramming, the training that she’s done in the last five or six days is quite extraordinary. She didn’t embarrass herself. She didn’t impress anyone, I don’t think, who was looking for substance. But, then, that wasn’t her job. She was able, I think, to get away with the idea that she’s not going to be an expert like Joe Biden, who, I must say, did not do what so many people were afraid that he might do, which was to appear bullying and condescending, as he does so often in ordinary discourse with ordinary people, not in a case like this. But he was quite restrained [inaudible]

JAY: Well, he didn’t critique her at all; he only critiqued McCain. Even when she took direct shots at him, he took no direct shots back at her.

BENNIS: That’s right. I think he had been ordered not to take her on directly, which may well have been a mistake, because she did emerge as quite confident. There was no diffidence in her body language, in her language. She was very sure of herself. And I think that helped her, I think that that gave her some credentials, some kind of credibility, that she’s satisfied with her own role as a soccer mom, a hockey mom, who knows this stuff, but she’s not going to pretend to be a Washington insider.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us tonight, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you.

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