I didn’t live-blog the debate tonight, but I did make notes for what turned out to be a very brief appearance on NBC News. Here is a summary of my impressions.
First, the context of the debate was critical. This was not about who was going to be Vice-President. In that respect, John Edwards was in a sense superfluous. The context was last week’s first Presidential debate, which most people say was won by John Kerry.
But if you go deeper into the poll data, you find that most people say that Kerry won the debate on style, but Bush won it on substance. For example, in the Gallup poll that appeared the next day, respondents who had watched the debate said they agreed with Bush’s stance on Iraq over Kerry’s by a whopping eleven points.
So Cheney’s assignment tonight was to puncture the media-driven Kerry boomlet by bringing the conversation back to the issues, the facts and the arguments, especially on foreign policy.
Cheney did that, and more. I scored the first Presidential debate like a boxing match with a ten-point must system. There were no knockdowns in that match. Tonight there were two. The first was when Edwards kept insisting on the fraudulence of the Iraq coalition by claiming that the U.S. is bearing 90% of the expense and suffering 90% of the casualties. Cheney responded, in part, by pointing out the absurdity of Kerry’s claim that he will build a broader alliance while at the same time assailing the war as the wrong war at the wrong time, etc.–but please send troops. He also criticized Kerry and Edwards for skipping Prime Minister Allawi’s appearance before Congress and then attacking Allawi afterward.
But the most devastating blow was struck when Edwards still wouldn’t give up, and came back with the 90% casualty figure. That was when Cheney, addressing Edwards as an adult admonishing a foolish child, pointed out that our most important ally in Iraq is the Iraqis, and that by refusing to include the Iraqis’ many casualties in his numbers–so as to be able to claim that almost all the casualties are American–Edwards denigrates the sacrifice of our Iraqi friends.
Edwards knew that Cheney was right, and it took him a while to regain his composure.
The second knockdown was when Cheney criticized Edwards’ lackluster record as a Senator, noting that he had missed 70% of the meetings of the Intelligence Committee, of which he was a member, and that his home-town paper had labeled him “Senator Gone.” That was good. But the devastating conclusion was Cheney’s observation that despite the fact that as Vice-President he regularly presides over the Senate, he had never met Edwards until he walked onto the stage tonight. This fact blew me away; I wouldn’t have thought it possible. It blew Edwards away, too.
Those were the highlights. Beyond that, I was surprised at how easily and repeatedly Edwards became flustered. It happened over and over–when Cheney’s attacks hit home, when there were minor issues over timing or who was supposed to go next, and on the question where he wasn’t supposed to mention John Kerry, but couldn’t help it, and finally giggled like a schoolgirl.
I don’t dislike John Edwards at all. He has a puppy-like eagerness to please, and it is kind of touching how easy it is to see when he doesn’t believe what he is saying (an odd quality in an alleged trial lawyer, by the way). But in running for Vice-President, he is completely out of his league.
More important, though, was the fact that the Cheney inexorably brought the discussion back to the basic issues and the basic facts and arguments that favor the Republican ticket.
My own role turned out to be pitifully small. We had a delightful camera crew here; the kids enjoyed the excitement and it was fun to watch the debate, making notes for possible use in the later commentary. What happened, though, was that the debate ran eight minutes long, so all of the ensuing commentary was truncated. We bloggers–Wonkette and I–were at the end, so naturally we were compressed most of all.
We knew we were in line for only a very short appearance, so after Tom Brokaw introduced us with a primer on blogging — “blog” is short for “web log,” with a graphic, for the last six people in the country who didn’t know that–he got to us and asked me the first question. Knowing that the post-debate show had only a minute or two left, I ignored Brokaw’s question and made what I thought was the most basic point about the debate (the second through fourth paragraphs above). Halfway through my answer, a voice in my earphone was saying “faster, faster.” I finished up as quickly as I could, and Brokaw tossed Wonkette a style question. She got about a sentence or two into her answer, then burst out laughing and concluded, “So Edwards didn’t do as well as he could have,” or something like that. And that was the end of the broadcast. I have no doubt that what caused Ana to laugh was a voice in her ear–just as she was getting warmed up–saying time was up, and she was done.
Sorry, Ana. I’m afraid I used up most of our time. She’ll have an opportunity for revenge when we meet again in Pennsylvania in a week or two for a panel discussion, along with Kos.
Anyway, it was a fun night, even if my own contribution was brief. Did Cheney succeed in stemming the Kerry boomlet? That depends partly on whether anyone was watching.
Notwithstanding my own membership in the pundit class, I admitted to an NBC producer that if I weren’t doing Brokaw’s show, I would have watched the first game of the Twins-Yankees series rather than the debate. (As it was, my son watched the game and brought me and the camera crew frequent updates.) We’ll see how many of our fellow citizens chose politics tonight.
In case you were wondering, the Twins won 2-0, behind ace pitcher Johan Santana, who pitched a seven-inning shutout on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff.
UPDATE: Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics saw the debate essentially the same way I did.
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