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What They're Really Saying in the Debates

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Thursday, Oct. 09, 2008 at 6:16 PM (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

A brief analysis of the televised debates between vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden October 2 and presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain October 7. The post also includes a transcript of the answers Palin and Biden gave to the question on the legal rights of same-sex couples, including whether they should have marriage equality.

Obama, McCain, Biden, Palin: What They’re Really Saying in the Debates

commentary portion by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

The most recent televised debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain October 7 was fascinating less for what got said — largely as a result of the big-money power that hangs over American politics and finances both major parties, there was only a narrow range of opinions and ideas they could express and as a result, the substance of their remarks was very much alike — than for the manners they gave off as they spoke. It was astonishingly ironic that McCain promoted himself as the “cool hand on the tiller” needed to conduct an effective foreign policy when for the entire debate it was Obama, not McCain, who was “cool.”

Obama was reasoned, calm, patient and sat respectfully at his desk when McCain spoke. McCain was crotchety, irritable, nervous and contemptuous, refusing to refer to Obama by name and looking surprisingly flustered, as if he can’t bear the idea that this tall, dark and handsome twerp is the only obstacle standing between him and the presidency. Obama seems to have that effect on his political opponents — Hillary Clinton was getting similarly flustered towards the end of their battle for the Democratic nomination — which might actually be a good reason to vote for him.

McCain expresses shock and disapproval at Obama’s willingness to negotiate with less-than-friendly world leaders like Iraq president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il “without preconditions” — which is basically Bush Administration “code” for the remarkable idea that a visit from a U.S. head of state is a benediction, a reward, to be bestowed only on other world leaders who already agree with us and are doing what we tell them to do. Frankly, if Obama can get under the skin of John McCain and Hillary Clinton as effectively as he has, it sounds to me like he’s the one we want across the negotiating table from folks like Ahmadinejad or Kim.

In some ways, the vice-presidential debate October 2 was a good deal more interesting than either of the encounters between the candidates at the top of the ticket. Whereas Obama, in my view, won both debates with McCain on points, Sarah Palin completely and utterly trounced Joe Biden by playing the “folksy” card to perfection. The V-P debate was like a real-life version of a Frank Capra movie, with Palin as a distaff James Stewart playing Everyperson — “Ms. Smith Goes to Washington” or “It’s a Wonderful Life in Alaska” — while Biden, who made some surprising boners (like naming the wrong article in the Constitution that deals with the executive branch and not even venturing a guess as to the name of the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan — Palin gave a name and it was wrong), played into Palin’s script by projecting the veiled contempt of the patrician. Throughout the debate, Biden rose above the American voters and said, “Look at me and all the wonderful things I’m going to do for you.” Palin spoke to them at their level and said, “Look at me: I AM you.”

The vice-presidential debate was also the only one that directly addressed a Queer-rights issue: marriage equality and the legal recognition of rights for same-sex couples. Both Biden and Palin came out at the same place — both willing to grant Gay and Lesbian couples equal rights but NOT to call it “marriage” — but from two quite different directions. Biden actually said that he and Obama “do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same Constitutional benefits as a relationship” before he backtracked, first restricting those rights to what’s generally specified in domestic-partnership legislation and then saying flat-out he was against legal recognition of civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Biden also said that “in an Obama/Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction, from a Constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint, between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple” — ignoring the fact that the only way to insure “absolutely no distinction” is either to open civil marriage, so-called, to Queer couples or rename the legal recognition of ALL couples “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions” and reserve the word “marriage” for the religious solemnization of a relationship, which under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment churches may choose to offer to same-sex partners or not.

On the other hand, Biden also inexplicably said that “[neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining, from a civil side, what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically a decision to be able to be left to the faiths and people who practice their faiths, the determination [of] what you call it.” To which I can only respond: what on earth do “the faiths and people who practice their faiths” have to do with whether same-sex couples are entitled to CIVIL rights. Apparently it’s just fine with Joe Biden that the law continues to grant special rights to the religions that DON’T recognize marriage equality for same-sex and to discriminate against those that do — as well as against people like myself (though not my husband!) who don’t believe in any “faith” or God at all. But then, ever since I was less than one year old and the words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, my country has been telling me that as an atheist I am a second-class citizen and incapable of true loyalty to this country.


Vice-Presidential Debate: Sarah Palin vs. Joe Biden, October 2, 2008 (excerpts)

Gwen Ifill [moderator]: The next round of questions starts with you, Senator Biden. Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting benefits to same-sex couples?

Joe Biden: Absolutely. Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely, positively. Look, in an Obama/Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction, from a Constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint, between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple. The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution, we should be granted — same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospital, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, etc. That’s only fair. It’s what the Constitution calls for.

And so we do support, we do support, making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same Constitutional benefits as a relationship — property rights, the rights of visitation, the rights of insurance, the rights of ownership — as heterosexual couples do.

Ifill: Governor, would you support expanding that beyond Alaska to the rest of the nation?

Sarah Palin: Well, not if it grows closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman, and unfortunately that’s sometimes where those steps lead. But I also want to clarify, if there’s any kind of suggestion at all from my answer that I would be anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners, choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves.

You know, I am tolerant, and I have a very diverse family and group of friends, and even within that group you would see some who may not agree with me on this issue, some very dear friends who don’t agree with me on this issue. But in that tolerance, also, no one would ever propose, not in a McCain/Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, being negotiated, between parties.

But I will tell Americans straight up that I don’t support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman. And I think through nuances, we could go round and round about what that actually means. But I’m being as straight-up with Americans as I can in my non-support for anything but a traditional definition of marriage.

Ifill: Let’s try to avoid nuance, Senator.

Biden: For that I would be grateful.

Ifill: Do you support Gay marriage?

Biden: No. [Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining, from a civil side, what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically a decision to be able to be left to the faiths and people who practice their faiths, the determination [of] what you call it. The bottom line is — and I’m glad to hear this from the Governor. I take her at her word, obviously — that she thinks there should be no civil-rights distinction whatever between a committed Gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple. If that’s the case, we really don’t have a difference.

Ifill [to Palin]: Is that what you said?

Palin: Your question to him was whether he supported Gay marriage, and my answer is the same as his, and it is that I do not.

Ifill: Wonderful. You agree. On that note, let’s move to foreign policy.

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