EDWARDS TRIUMPHANT. Stylistically, I thought last night's vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards ended in a tie. Cheney's matter-of-fact, business-like demeanor and Edwards's lawyerly approach were both effective. Following last Thursday's presidential debate, we now know that the only person on either national ticket who can't form a coherent thought is George W. Bush.
But style alone is not enough. Overall, I thought Edwards did far more to help himself - and John Kerry - than Cheney was able to accomplish for the Republican ticket. Here's why.
1. Edwards had more to prove. The North Carolina senator is not a well-known figure in national political circles. The undecided voters who tuned in probably barely knew who Edwards was. What they saw was not the grinning Ken doll of the Democratic primaries, but an engaging, engaged, smart, sharp person of sufficient gravitas and experience to make a plausible vice-president. For that matter, he came off as a far more plausible president than Bush did four years ago.
2. Perceptions of Cheney remain unchanged. Public-opinion polls have showed Cheney to be the most unpopular member of the Bush administration. In this new ABC News/Washington Post poll, for instance, Cheney's favorability rating is 44 percent, and his unfavorability rating is 43 percent. Cheney did nothing to overcome his Dark Lord image last night, coming across as deeply negative, and often sneering at Edwards with such leering contempt that you almost expected to see blood dripping from his fangs. As William Saletan observes in Slate, "Though Edwards was delivering the harsher blows, Cheney looked meaner."
3. Edwards treated the stage like a courtroom. You may have heard that Edwards was a trial lawyer before he entered politics. The Republicans like to point that out often enough, repeating the phrase "trial lawyer" as though it was akin to "male prostitute." Last night, we got to see why Edwards was so successful. Unlike Cheney, Edwards repeatedly used his time to answer earlier accusations from Cheney, but he was always careful to veer back to moderator Gwen Ifill's question. He used the clock more effectively, too. Cheney, for instance, took advantage of a 30-second rebuttal to refute Edwards's charges about Halliburton. Edwards then used his 30 seconds simply to repeat the charges:
These are the facts.
The facts are the vice-president's company that he was CEO of, that did business with sworn enemies of the United States, paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information, it's under investigation for bribing foreign officials.
The same company that got a $7.5 billion no-bid contract, the rule is that part of their money is supposed to be withheld when they're under investigation, as they are now, for having overcharged the American taxpayer, but they're getting every dime of their money.
I'm happy to let voters make their own decision about this.
What was so impressive about this from a tactical point of view was that Edwards knew Cheney wouldn't have a chance to rebut this. Edwards knew that the next question would go to him, and that after that the debate would turn to domestic issues. Edwards showed that Kerry may be a better pure debater, but that he's the better lawyer.
4. Cheney lied - and got caught. Cheney lied about little things, and he lied about big things. We've become accustomed to that, of course, but this isn't September 2003, when he made a fool of Tim Russert by telling him he was no longer on Halliburton's payroll - a flat-out falsehood. This time, everyone is watching.
A little lie: Cheney told Edwards that even though he, as vice-president, is the presiding officer of the Senate, last night's debate was the first time he had ever met Edwards. As the Los Angeles Times reports, "It seems, however, the vice president's memory was a little off. Or maybe Edwards didn't leave much of an impression." (I grabbed the photo of Cheney and Edwards from the Daily Kos.)
A big lie: Edwards correctly pointed out that Cheney has repeatedly promoted the false notion that Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks three years ago. As a truth-serum analysis in today's Washington Post observes:
Early in the debate, Cheney snapped at Edwards, "The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." But in numerous interviews, Cheney has skated close to the line in ways that may have certainly left that impression on viewers, usually when he cited the possibility that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, met with an Iraqi official - even after that theory was largely discredited.
Read the whole thing - it's striking how easy it is for the Post to find examples of Cheney lies from last night's debate, and how hard it strains to find examples of Edwards lies with which to balance it off. Ain't objectivity grand?
How is it going to play? An ABC News instant poll scored the debate 43 percent to 35 percent, but it's hard to know what to make of that, since respondents skewed Republican by a margin of 38 percent to 31 percent. CBS News, which only polled undecided voters, had it 41 percent Edwards, 28 percent Cheney.
Last night was potentially dangerous territory for the Kerry campaign. Four years ago, Joe Lieberman was thought to have a huge advantage over Cheney - and got his clock cleaned. By contrast, Edwards fought Cheney at least to a tie, and possibly better than that. Kerry couldn't have asked for a better performance as he heads into his second debate with Bush this Friday.