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.
Irrespective of the degree to which Cheney came across as a jerk--and it's not as though he has anything to lose in that category--my impression of the debate was very different from the manner in which you and others have characterized it. To my eyes, Edwards came across as nervous and perpetually sweat-browed.
Cheney undoubtably controlled the tone of the debate, projecting his usual air of calm and competence--a persona that we Medialog readers find offputting and even unnerving, but which a lot of people love to hate. They wouldn't necessarily like to have a beer with the guy, but they trust him to get the job done, etc. By contrast, Edwards came across as defensive and green.
Moreover, Edwards adhered rather closely to his talking-points. I feel like there were myriad opportunities for him to engage Cheney directly that were flubbed by bad timing and talking about how he doesn't have enough time to address something.
An example that comes to mind is the AIDS question. Cheney's answer was pure bullshit; he clearly had no answer to the question, and he covered all of the bases without really saying anything. Edwards had an opportunity to jump right in and say: "Here's problem number one--Health Care." He could have immediately outlined a few components of the Kerry/Edwards plan that would address the needs of those who suffer from the disease--particularly the poor African American female demographic to which not even Cheney could lie deftly enough to pay adequate lip service--and point out that with Bush/Cheney, you just get four more years of the same. Instead, he offered a meandering response that didn't get to the larger question of a Health Care plan until too late.
I think Cheney dislayed a superior command of the facts and that many of Edwards's attacks came across as impish and half-baked. There is a segment of the populace (albeit jerks, all of them) to which Cheney's performance will have a perverse appeal.
The extent to which Edwards won is limited to his brighter image. Fortunately, this is more important than substance (to the extent that the VP debate matters anyway). He held his own, but he didn't win.
For those that wish to determine who "won" the debate last night (which really doesn't accomplish much), you have to place both candidates in the proper context:
Cheney: mysterious & powerful vice president and decision-maker, main advisor to the monkey president - here's a guy that hides in his secret bunker when the alert level gets too high. He also chooses to work for a huge corporate conglomerate, Halliburton, where we have no REAL idea what he did - we can only guess by seeing how Halliburton conducts itself; they get a multi-billion dollar no-bid contract after we invade Iraq - to say that Cheney had absolutely no influece in our relationship with Halliburton is naive. Even if Cheney's hands are clean since he left the company (doubtful), I would guess that during his tenure at HB, he had an intimate knowledge on how to get government contracts, which they had many of. HB is no doubt benefitting from this advisement to this day. AND Cheney is still getting money from them (I don't care what it's called).
Edwards: Pretty much an unknown until the Democratic primary; we all know he is a wealthy trail lawyer and we might know a little about his voting record in the Senate.
Given how much we know about both candidates and have them in better context (admittedly my own context), I thought Cheney seemed evil ("... blood dripping from his fangs ..." is exactly how I see him - it seemed like he was always about to lunge at Edwards and strangle him & then stomp on his body) and it was clear that Edwards got under his skin, just like Kerry did with the President. For Edwards to have held his own and come across as very "Presidential" and to simply be at the same table as Cheney was a HUGE boon to the Democratic ticket.
FWIW, listening mostly on the radio (I got home and turned on the TV before it ended), I thought it was a narrow Cheney victory. Cheney sounded like his usual self--cool, collected and competent--while Edwards sounded at times a little rushed and a little defensive. (He also tripped over his tongue every so often, which seemed to be a result of his rushing.)
I didn't think Edwards was bad; more like he was okay, while Cheney was not especially good, but still good. So, as I said, just judging from the radio feed, it seemed a very narrow edge for Cheney.
2 other comments: First, I'm just saying that Cheney performed better. As a previous commenter pointed out, it still could be true that Kerry-Edwards got more from the debate, just by having Edwards up there on the stage with the Veep and looking reasonably competent.
Second, it's interesting what made Cheney seem (to me) better, which is his manner more than anything. Edwards kept sounding like he was trying to convince his audience of things; in other words, he sounded like he was arguing for a claim that he acknowledged to be debatable. Cheney, as always, just sounds like he's stating the facts. That is, he says things in the way you say them, when you take them to be acknowledged facts. (Obviously, this is compatible with several of the things Cheney said actually being long-since-refuted lies; I'm just talking about his manner in delivering his remarks.) For example, Edwards kept saying "That's a distortion" then arguing why the claim was false or misleading. Cheney would just say, "Well, the Senator has his facts wrong," and then he'd tell his own story, but tell it as if he were reading it out of a history book. It's very powerful rhetorically, and seems to me to be the main reason Cheney has whatever political skills he does.
There's nothing that one can really do about the fact that Cheney can deliver whoppers with such a reassuring air, but I do wish that Edwards would learn to sound more like that. Edwards always sounds like *he* believes what he's saying; Cheney sounds like *you* believe what he's saying.
Howard posted that "nobody knows what Cheney did at H-burton. NPR recently profiled his tenure and the wreckage he left behind. Buying a company with millions in outstanding asbestos lawsuits has left a bitter taste at Halliburton. Perhaps Kerry could use that as another example of Cheney's poor judgement. On a side note, Bush and Cheney need a tailor to make suit jackets that don't allow their shoulders to cover their ears.
North Shore Glenn
I know you in the media hate Edwards' guts, but the reality is he SLAUGHTERED Cheney in that debate.
Cheney lied his butt off; moreover, he was phoning in his performance because he, like you, think Edwards is nothing but an airhead, an empty suit. Well, cluephone, Dan: Edwards didn't get to where he is by being stupid. In fact, he's the most talented politician of at least the past 40 years.
So Cheney was phoning it in, and he was tired to boot. Edwards, in the style for which he has become famous in the courtroom, ripped him apart piece by piece.
The only sad thing is Edwards is NOT the presidential nominee. Instead, he is playing second fiddle to somebody who is clearly inferior in every way.
But if he had, we'd be talking landslide for the Democrats instead of an uphill battle. But the media minions knew that when they chose to bury Edwards in the primaries and in the campaign for the most part.
Anybody who claims that debate was a tie is a liar. Period.
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