Tonight’s vice presidential debate featured two superb performances. Unfortunately for John Edwards, they were delivered by the incumbent and by moderator Gwen Ifill. Give Edwards credit for a good college try.
I hope our readers won’t mind if I start with Ifill. Because we attack the MSM so often, it seems only fair to praise one of its members when praise is due, and it is certainly due tonight. I saw not the slightest hint of bias on Ifill’s part. She asked mostly tough, mostly intelligent questions of both candidates, and somehow managed to be stern, friendly, and entertaining all at the same time. If she can keep it up, the presidential debates could be blessed for decades with that rarest of “brokers” — one that is both fair and intelligent.
Now to the main event. It was a mismatch. Edwards came out swinging with Kerry’s material from the first debate. This gave the Republicans a second bite at the apple, although clearly biting it cleanly the second time is far from a complete substitute for failing to do so on the first try. In any event, the scrappy Senator quickly found himself being rocked by haymakers. These included a recitation of Kerry’s decades-long record of consistently being “on the wrong side on defense issues”; a reminder of how Edwards was not long ago peddling gloom and doom about Afghanistan; a reminder that Kerry’s “rhetoric [90 minutes of tough talk, said Cheney generously] would be more credible if there were a record to back it up”; an admonition to Edwards that the pressure of the moment determines where he and John Kerry stand, followed by a description of how Kerry’s tortured voting pattern on Iraq is explained by the pressure of his race against Howard Dean, followed by a reminder that Kerry cannot be expected to stand up well to the pressure of the war on terror if he couldn’t stand up to Howard Dean.
Edwards was reeling throughout this ordeal. Appropriately enough, he could be seen bobbing in and out of the picture frame. As Chris Matthews later said, it was a battle between a guy with a water pistol and a guy with a machine gun.
Things got no better for Edwards when Ifill asked him whether it was a bit naive to think that the French would join us in Iraq. Edwards never answered, but Cheney did, suggesting that it was naive to think that anyone would join Kerry in Iraq given the contempt he has shown for both the war and our allies. He then made Edwards look small for not taking into account, when he computed the casualty figures, the contribution of the Iraqis.
Edwards tried to rally by talking about Halliburton. His argument was based on a distortion, as even Brain Williams of NBC would later point out (Halliburton got the contracts in Iraq because no one else would/could do the work). When Cheney wondered how he could answer the slander in 30 seconds, Edwards smirked. But the smirk disappeared when Cheney turned to Edwards’ Senate record, pointing out that a North Carolina newspaper refers to him as “Senator Gone,” and noting that Edwards is absent so often that Cheney, the Senate’s presiding officer, had never met him until tonight (I have to wonder whether there was some kind of distortion in that line). Edwards was ready and shot back with an attack on Cheney’s voting record as a member of Congress. He focused on Cheney’s votes on long-forgotten causes of twenty years ago — Martin Luther King’s birthday, Head Start, and some sort of resolution on Nelson Mandela. Most voters will think Cheney got the better of this exchange, I imagine — he certainly got the best sound-bite for the news at 11. He sounded like the school headmaster quietly but firmly dressing down a truant pupil.
Things got a little better for Edwards when the debate shifted to domestic issues. I scored this portion of the debate pretty much of a draw, in part because Cheney seemed to back off. Perhaps he was tiring or maybe he thought he had bashed Edwards enough. But it seemed to me that Cheney continued to win style points. In particular, Edwards seemed to hurt himself by being visibly frustrated that he couldn’t talk more about health care. So he talked about it anyway, usually at the expense of being responsive to the question on the floor. Incidentally, I wish I could “bottle” the way Cheney looked when Edwards was going off on these tangents — actually it was the same way he looked throughout, which makes me wish all the more that I could bottle it. (I also wish I could bottle the way Tom Brokaw says “bloggers.”)
A word of caution here. The Democrats are loaded for bear on the domestic side, and Bush better be ready. Edwards didn’t get the bear tonight partly because Cheney is a grizzly and partly because Ifill didn’t ask the questions Edwards wanted to answer. But Edwards emptied his barrels anyway, and Bush should know he has his work cut out for him.
The gay marriage discussion worked out well enough for Cheney. Despite his family situation, Cheney managed to look more comfortable discussing this issue than Edwards did. The Senator knows this is a problem issue for his side, so he decided to talk about Cheney’s family situation.
Other than Edwards’ failure to provide any meaningful response to Ifill’s suggestion that he has the least impressive resume of anyone nominated for vice president in years, the last part of the debate didn’t produce anything I feel like commenting about. Until the closing statements. Edwards gave a standard campaign spiel, minus the “two Americas.” And, astonishingly, I don’t believe he even mentioned 9/11 or our security needs. Cheney responded with a focused answer that mentioned tax cuts, job creation, etc. but focused powerfully on the vital issue in the campaign — the fact that we face a security crisis “like no other we have known.” Thus, from start to finish, it really was Senator Lightweight against Vice President Gravitas. Or, in the words of Wonkette, “Edwards didn’t do as well as he should have.”
What will the debate mean for the election? No much, I’m afraid, unless President Bush can at least hold his own with John Kerry in the next two debates. But it was a sweet night, nonetheless.
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