I’m sure I’m not the only one to say this, so I’ll keep it brief. This was a pretty astounding moment at last week’s Vice Presidential debate. Compared to the droning repetition of economic and foreign policy talking points and sound bites in the first two of three Obama/McCain debates (what exactly was the difference between the first and second debate besides the setting?), we got to hear talking points and sound bites regarding just about every election-deciding issue from Biden and Palin. While this is definitely a result in part of the McCain campaign’s attempt to deliver a gaffe-free Palin by instituting a strict debate format (notice her disdain for "nuance" as articulated in this clip), both Biden and Palin came prepared to talk about all issues briefly and, in terms of political language, thoroughly. These are still televised soundbites, which as I argued before prevents progressive discourse in recorded media. But where the relative freedom offered in the Obama-McCain debate style resulted only in time-wasting compliments to the opponent or thank-yous to the questioner and a clearly flustered Tom Brokaw, Biden and Palin very quickly delivered their stump rhetoric. They even had time to talk about Darfur! (Biden, in one of the debate’s greatest moments, was even able to challenge the dominant opposing rhetoric, calling out McCain’s self-ordained maverick status.)
But the same-sex marriage moment was so revealing, because it really illustrated the emptiness of campaign rhetoric. Each candidate revealed what was ultimately the exact same position on the issue, but with rhetoric characteristic to each of their alleged political viewpoints. Biden delivered a clearly-articulated a common-sense stance on same-sex marriage that certainly appeals to voters who consider themselves progressive, while Palin played to the homophobia of her conservative base while balancing an appeal to voters who might take a more moderate stance (she seems to think that “tolerance” is a more progressive word than it sounds), but their rhetoric lost all its worth as soon as they realized their concurrence on the issue. This illuminates the very important role that rhetoric and spin play in this election (especially with an arguably moderate Democratic ticket), where politicians remain astute in delivering campaign talking points that may sound like a breath of fresh air, but, out of fear of upsetting the status quo (i.e., more voters), are probably not so different from current policies.
Notice how frequently in the debates the candidates have stumbled over their words, almost saying other obvious words. They aren't thinking about the issue when they answer a question, they're thinking about finishing their sentence in the best way possible. Notice how quickly Obama's once-inspiring rhetoric has gotten so tired. This is why the years-long presidential campaign process can hardly contain radical vessels of proposed change (byebye, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich), because anything signifying drastic change gets normalized and reconstituted into the political mainstream in order for the candidate to have any hope of becoming elected. And this ridiculously long process can't help but cause any unique, elevated language to eventually resonate as empty rhetoric.
The words you have seen so far, and will once again see on Wednesday night, have been thoroughly prepared and cleansed for unthreatening television viewing. So sit back, enjoy, and watch the democratic process at work.