Tuesday, October 05, 2004
Not that Edwards was without his good moments. Almost immediately after the debate shifted to domestic policy, he started to not suck. Some of his answers were actually good, especially his obviously-rehearsed defense of the fact that he's a trial lawyer, and very convincing, substantive discussion of malpractice suits (even if I disagree with his solution to the problem). His closing statement had the potential to be powerful, but given the preceding 90 minutes, it felt too fake and rehearsed. I can understand why he reminds people of Clinton, when he's giving a speech. But Clinton can talk like that when he's speaking unrehearsed, and Edwards can't.
Cheney is a fantastic debater, and his performance tonight was easily the best of any presidential or vice presidential debater in the past 4 years. If you didn't understand anything they were talking about, you'd conclude that Cheney had a better grasp of policy. His answers were coherent and substantive, convincing. Edwards debated like Bush, falling back on pre-packaged attacks to the point of repetition. All through this, as Cheney wiped the floor with Edwards, he did it with a calm, pleasant manner that said Edwards was getting what he deserved.
Cheney took it a step further: he has an instinct for when he can cross the line and go in for the kill. Several times Cheney declined to respond to a question instead of filling up his alloted time, exactly those times when Edwards was sounding weak and repetitive. When he cited Edwards's attendance in the senate, it made Edwards look pathetic, and Edwards had no good response. He just got Bush-like and cried about "distortions" before changing the subject. I think that even people who don't understand the policies being discussed very well can sniff out that sort of weakness.
I think Edwards erred when the moderator asked him about flip-flopping and spoon-fed him some Bush flip-flops. He claimed they'd been consistent the entire time, a claim that strains credibility. I don't know why it's such political death to say "We extended you our good faith when you claimed that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of having these weapons and immediate action was necessary, and now we've seen that you were making those claims irresponsibly," or something to that effect. Instead, by doubling down on the "total consistency" angle, they've cut themselves off from that direction for good. Kerry was closer in the first debate when he pointed out the kindergarten insight that you can be certain and wrong. Sometimes it can help your case to admit your faults, it takes an attack a way from your opponent (8 Mile had a great example of this, but you probably don't want to deploy that attack unmodified in this context). Edwards did something like this late in the debate, when he admitted that he didn't have the experience record that Cheney did, but that didn't mean he was wrong (or something to that effect). Unfortunately, I think people had mostly figured out what they needed to from the first half of the debate, and turned their TVs off by the time things were going well for Edwards. Fortunately, I think most people aren't going to be too swayed by the VP debate anyways.
Watching this debate, I couldn't help but wonder whether maybe Bush hasn't pioneered a long-term innovation in the role of the vice president. Obviously, the vice president hasn't had an important role in previous administrations. Lyndon Johnson said the most miserable time of his life was being Kennedy's VP. He was used to having incredible power as the Senate Majority Leader, and took the VP slot thinking that "power is where power goes." He drafted an order for Kennedy to sign that would have made him something like "co-president," but obviously Kennedy declined.
However, Bush has gotten a lot of mileage out of Cheney. Cheney is obviously a heavy-weight policy wonk, and does a lot of heavy lifting. The amount of hatred that is evident for Cheney probably does draw some of the heat away from Bush himself. And Cheney's position probably helps him get things done. Watching this debate, you couldn't help but wonder if things might have gone differently if Edwards had been the presidential candidate, and someone like Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, Colin Powell, or some other well-spoken, highly intelligent, long-time policy expert who is too old and obviously disinclined from politics to be any sort of threat to the president.
Update: I woke up this morning to find that the consensus appears to be that Edwards won the debate. Apparently the second half of the debate resonated with watchers more than I thought it would. When Cheney started destroying Edwards early in the debate, and Edwards sat there fidgeting with his pen and burying his face in the coffee mug, before failing to counter any charges and instead repeating his vague allegations, I thought it was all over. Cheney went on to make unbelievable statements that he should have known better than to try to get away with, but my fears were that Edwards was so damaged at this point that it was all moot.
This morning, there's several developments on what Cheney said. Obviously, his claim that he never said there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida is so ridiculous I doubt anyone has bothered to point it out. But Cheney incorrectly gave the URL for Annenberg's Political FactCheck (factcheck.org) as "factcheck.com." George Soros snapped up that domain and put a message up on it. Also, the Kerry campaign has produced a picture of Edwards and Cheney on the stage next to each other at some event (which of course doesn't prove that they actually met, but if it gets enough circulation, it's as good as proof).
Andrew Sullivan, William Saletan, and Chris Suellentrop and others whose opinion is probably better than mine all disagree with me. More importantly, the first instant polls are coming back in favor of Edwards, especially CBS's poll of undecided voters, which shows that they favored Edwards. Given that more people are probably reading about the debate than actually watched it, if it continues at this rate it might add up to a functional win for Kerry/Edwards, even though I'm still not sure what they saw last night.
Another update: Apparently Fred Kaplan and RealClearPolitics got the same read as I did. Kaplan says:
Cheney came into this debate with a weak hand. The war in Iraq is going poorly. Casualties are mounting. Meaningful victory is increasingly elusive. The rhetorical foundations of the war—weapons of mass destruction, Saddam's connection to al-Qaida—are thinner than ever and acknowledged as such by more insiders every day.
Edwards referred to these trends and to the administration's misjudgments and misrepresentations. But he only referred to them. He didn't pound them home time and again.
The Bush-Cheney campaign has tried to deal with the administration's problems by switching the perspective—warning that Kerry will only make things worse. And Cheney did push this button over and over: "You're not credible. … You have a record that isn't so distinguished. … Your rhetoric would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. … I don't believe [Kerry] has the qualities we need as a commander in chief"—all uttered with a tone of parental disappointment.
Kerry defused this tactic very effectively last Thursday. Edwards didn't tonight. It may be that reading a transcript of tonight's debate on foreign and defense policy—or, better still, a point-by-point outline of the transcript—might make Edwards come out the winner. Cheney, after all, spouted a fair bit of nonsense. And Edwards pointed out that some of it was nonsense. But my guess is a stronger impression was made by Cheney's withering assault on his challengers' qualifications for office. Edwards shot down some of the specific attacks, but he didn't mow down the barrage.
Another update: Andrew Sullivan elaborates here. He's convincing me.