Sarah Palin was not a train wreck in the Vice Presidential Debate last night, but three things stood out for me.

First, when asked about the constitutional role of the Vice President, in light of Dick Cheney’s contention that the Vice President is part of the Legislative branch, Palin either did not realize the question was about constitutional law or does not understand the Constitution. She said:

Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation.

Note that she shows no awareness of distinct branches in the federal government, or of the doctrine of separation of powers. Nor does she indicate that she has even read the Constitution. Compare that with Biden’s answer to the same question:

[Dick Cheney] doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.

And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there’s a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.

The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he’s part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us.

Note that Biden understands the basic structure of the Constitution: Article I relates to the Executive branch. Biden also recognizes that there are distinct branches, naming both the Executive and the Legislative in his answer. Biden’s answer shows that he understands the doctrine of separation of powers and he understands how the Bush-Cheney administration has flouted that doctrine in favor of a “unitary executive.” Finally, Biden has clearly read the constitutional job description and knows how the Vice President is supposed to relate to the Legislative branch—by breaking ties in the Senate.

So who would you rather have as a Vice President? Someone who clearly knows what the job is about and understands the constitutional structure of our federal government? Or somebody who says vague things about “wisdom” and “flexibility” and “what is best for the American people”? Palin’s answer is emblematic of the linguistic and legal dumbing-down that the Bush-Cheney administration has ushered in for America. She says things that might appeal to someone who never paid attention in a high school civics class, or someone who does not understand the structure of our government. Maybe she does not understand these things herself, but it seems much more likely that the McCain campaign trained her to talk in a way that will lead people along by the nose, without getting to reality.

(Another example of Palin dumbing down the discourse was calling the Republican ticket a “team of mavericks.” Just think about that one for a second. Seems to me more like the Republican ticket, maybe even the Republican party, is a team of beating language into a meaningless pulp, the better to exert power and control.)

Second, Palin missed another opportunity to show a deeper knowledge and appreciation of American history when she uttered this sentence:

And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here.

President Reagan did talk about America as a shining city on a hill. But he did not first attach that phrase to our people and our land. It was John Winthrop, in a sermon given on the ship Arabella, in 1630, to people on their way to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Reagan knew that. Palin had an opportunity last night to show that she knew that, too, and she missed it.

Maybe that’s a minor point, but I think it shows the short span of Palin’s political memory. When Katie Couric asked Palin to name her favorite Vice President, after a bizarre first answer of Geraldine Ferraro, who was only ever a candidate for Vice President, she said this:

I think those who have gone on to the Presidency—George Bush Sr., having—kind of learned the ropes in his position as VP and then moving on up.

That’s a weird answer, too, because she first defines her “favorite” Vice President in categorical rather than individual terms: someone who has “gone on to the Presidency.” There are plenty of Vice Presidents in that category. It includes heavy hitters John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. But who did she choose? The most recent member of that group, George H.W. Bush. Did she name any special qualities that made him stand out? No. It’s the kind of answer I would expect from a high school student with no knowledge of or interest in history.

So when Palin left “city on a hill” in Ronald Reagan’s hands, without mentioning John Winthrop or even the colonies, it just reaffirmed, in my mind, that Palin has a shallow, non-historical sense of America.

Third, Palin just did not sound like someone who ought to be in the second highest office in the land. All her “folksy” phrases grated on me. Referring to Obama and Biden as “you guys,” saying things like “doggone it,” and punctuating her talk with words like “you betcha” may play well with some people, but not with me. One of my friends in our little debate-watching party observed that leaders ought to seem strong and broad, so we wonder about their everyday humanity, instead of looking and sounding like ordinary people, so we wonder whether they have the strength and breadth to do a difficult job.

So, again, while Palin did far better than I expected in the Vice Presidential Debate, the content of her answers only heightened my concerns about her qualifications and ability.

Addendum:Film critic Roger Ebert has written one of the more interesting responses to the Vice Presidential debate last night, limiting himself to Palin’s theatrical performance.

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