The final question from Gwen Ifill in last night’s debate provided both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin a perfect platform to launch tough attacks on their opponents.  However, both candidates missed the softball, and in Biden’s case, managed to strike out completely:

IFILL: Final question tonight, before your closing statements, starting with you, Senator Biden. Can you think of a single issue — and this is to cast light for people who are just trying to get to know you in your final debate, your only debate of this year — can you think of a single issue, policy issue, in which you were forced to change a long-held view in order to accommodate changed circumstances?

Employers often ask applicants a variation of this question in order to test honesty.  In fact, Barack Obama made the mistake of being completely honest in an early primary debate on the more common variation — “what would you describe as your weakness” — and got criticized for his “lack of organization” by other Democrats for his candor.  Normally, politicians will say something transparently self-serving, such as “My greatest weakness is my deep and abiding love for children, pets, and the American flag.”

In this case, both Biden and Palin answered in the spirit of the question, but missed opportunities to go on the offense.  Palin did better than Biden with this response:

PALIN: There have been times where, as mayor and governor, we have passed budgets that I did not veto and that I think could be considered as something that I quasi-caved in, if you will, but knowing that it was the right thing to do in order to progress the agenda for that year and to work with the legislative body, that body that actually holds the purse strings.

So there were times when I wanted to zero-base budget, and to cut taxes even more, and I didn’t have enough support in order to accomplish that.

But on the major principle things, no, there hasn’t been something that I’ve had to compromise on, because we’ve always seemed to find a way to work together. Up there in Alaska, what we have done is, with bipartisan efforts, is work together and, again, not caring who gets the credit for what, as we accomplish things up there.

And that’s been just a part of the operation that I wanted to participate in. And that’s what we’re going to do in Washington, D.C., also, bring in both sides together. John McCain is known for doing that, also, in order to get the work done for the American people.

The message: I’ve had to compromise with opponents on budgetary issues, but only grudgingly, and not without a fight.  That’s not a bad answer, but she missed the opportunity to talk about the Ketchikan Bridge earmark, aka the Bridge to Nowhere.  She could have used that opportunity to talk about the corrosive nature of earmarks, how she learned first-hand the potential for waste and fraud, and finish by reminding voters that Biden and Obama voted to support that earmark — twice.

But if Palin just missed an opportunity, Biden managed to step all over Obama’s message of getting past ideology and working across the aisle.  Ifill’s question seemed designed to have Biden explain his vote to support the war in Iraq as a mistake in light of the Bush administration’s handling of the war, etc etc, and how he would never do that again.  Instead, Biden emphasized his decades-long presence in Washington with an anecdote about how he learned to be even more ideological regarding judicial nominations:

BIDEN: Yes, I can. When I got to the United States Senate and went on the Judiciary Committee as a young lawyer, I was of the view and had been trained in the view that the only thing that mattered was whether or not a nominee appointed, suggested by the president had a judicial temperament, had not committed a crime of moral turpitude, and was — had been a good student.

And it didn’t take me long — it was hard to change, but it didn’t take me long, but it took about five years for me to realize that the ideology of that judge makes a big difference.

That’s why I led the fight against Judge Bork. Had he been on the court, I suspect there would be a lot of changes that I don’t like and the American people wouldn’t like, including everything from Roe v. Wade to issues relating to civil rights and civil liberties.

And so that — that — that was one of the intellectual changes that took place in my career as I got a close look at it. And that’s why I was the first chairman of the Judiciary Committee to forthrightly state that it matters what your judicial philosophy is. The American people have a right to understand it and to know it.

But I did change on that, and — and I’m glad I did.

Biden managed to hit every hot button in this answer to alienate centrists, independents, and undecideds.  Not only does he talk about ideological litmus tests for confirming judges to the federal bench, he brags about it.  In fact, his original position matches what most Americans believe the Senate’s scope in confirmations should be – whether judges have the competence to fulfill the roles to which the President appoints them.  Biden instead manages to encapsulate everything that has gone wrong in the confirmation process, and delights in the damage he caused.

Moreover, it hardly reflects well on Obama’s themes of post-partisanship and consensus-building.  Biden’s answer specifically rejects that.  He says the most important lesson he’s learned from being wrong is that he wasn’t ideological enough, and that he should be more partisan in his approach to the judiciary.  It’s so far off message that it simply can’t be reconciled with the ticket.

And if that’s the greatest lesson Biden’s learned in 36 years in Washington, that says volumes about Biden and Washington.