The Vice-Presidential Debate
I just finished watching the Vice-Presidential debate, and I thought I’d get my impressions down now before they can be tainted by the inevitable spin. Here goes.
(First, a caveat — my PVR stopped recording before the end of the debate since it ran late, so I missed the closing statements. So if either Cheney or Edwards took that time to pull out a spit and started barbecuing a baby, say, I didn’t see it. I’m assuming that nothing quite that newsworthy happened. If it did, feel free to weight my opinions accordingly.)
Overall, it was a pretty even debate. Both men got their licks in, but neither managed to pull out a real knockout of the type that Lloyd Bentsen famously landed on Dan Quayle back in ’88. Too bad.
If anyone can be said to be the winner of a debate where very little happened, it’s probably Cheney — he was under the gun to make up for Bush’s abysmal performance last Thursday, so just displaying competence is a big improvement for the GOP. Cheney came off as, well, Dick Cheney — if you didn’t like him yesterday there wasn’t anything on display tonight that would change your mind, and if you think he’s the paragon of good leadership he didn’t drop the ball egregiously enough to change your mind.
Edwards came off well, I thought. His relative charisma versus the bland Cheney was undeniable; he seemed lively and human, and wasn’t afraid to answer “When did you stop beating your wife?”-type questions on such topics as his background as a trial lawyer. He certainly didn’t embarrass Kerry or the Democrats, but he didn’t blow the doors off Cheney the way Kerry did to Bush, either.
The one thing that struck me most was how the tone of the exchanges between the two men shifted after one key exchange. For most of the early part of the debate, Cheney and Edwards struck at each other directly and ferociously. For example, Edwards’ response to the first question (about Iraq) was blunt:
Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. I mean, the reality you and George Bush continue to tell people, first, that things are going well in Iraq — the American people don’t need us to explain this to them, they see it on their television every single day. We lost more troops in September than we lost in August; lost more in August than we lost in July; lost more in July than we lost in June.
The truth is, our men and women in uniform have been heroic. Our military has done everything they’ve been asked to do.
And it’s not just me that sees the mess in Iraq. There are Republican leaders, like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel, who have said Iraq is a mess and it’s getting worse.
And when they were asked why, Richard Lugar said because of the incompetence of the administration.
Cheney didn’t hold back, either — as in this bit, when he responded to Edwards’ questioning of the propriety of giving no-bid contracts to Halliburton:
The reason they keep trying to attack Halliburton is because they want to obscure their own record.
And Senator, frankly, you have a record in the Senate that’s not very distinguished. You’ve missed 33 out of 36 meetings in the Judiciary Committee, almost 70 percent of the meetings of the Intelligence Committee.
You’ve missed a lot of key votes: on tax policy, on energy, on Medicare reform.
Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you “Senator Gone.” You’ve got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate.
Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session.
The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.
Both men were living up to the traditional VP nominee’s role as the attack dog for their campaign.
But then, something interesting happened: moderator Gwen Ifill asked Cheney how he squared his support for his gay daughter with his Administration’s championing of a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Cheney responded:
Gwen, you’re right, four years ago in this debate, the subject came up. And I said then and I believe today that freedom does mean freedom for everybody. People ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want. It’s really no one else’s business.
That’s a separate question from the issue of whether or not government should sanction or approve or give some sort of authorization, if you will, to these relationships.
Traditionally, that’s been an issue for the states. States have regulated marriage, if you will. That would be my preference.
In effect, what’s happened is that in recent months, especially in Massachusetts, but also in California, but in Massachusetts we had the Massachusetts Supreme Court direct the state of — the legislature of Massachusetts to modify their constitution to allow gay marriage.
And the fact is that the president felt that it was important to make it clear that that’s the wrong way to go, as far as he’s concerned.
Now, he sets the policy for this administration, and I support the president.
A careful answer, to be sure — not entirely shocking from someone who is in the terribly difficult position of having a gay child while leading a party with a substantial homophobic wing.
Edwards could have bashed Cheney for not sticking up for his daughter. Instead, he took the high road, keeping his focus on the issue of the Amendment rather than Cheney’s personal life:
Now, as to this question, let me say first that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It’s a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.
And I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and so does John Kerry.
I also believe that there should be partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples in long-term, committed relationships.
But we should not use the Constitution to divide this country.
No state for the last 200 years has ever had to recognize another state’s marriage.
This is using the Constitution as a political tool, and it’s wrong.
The next question was also about gay marriage, and this time Edwards led off, taking the opportunity to restate his opposition to the Amendment. Cheney’s rebuttal was brief, but fascinating:
Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter.
I appreciate that very much.
IFILL: That’s it?
CHENEY: That’s it.
And from that point on, the tone of the debate shifted abruptly. Cheney no longer launched head-on attacks on Edwards, directly challenging his record and competence. In fact, at one point Ifill practically handed him a golden opportunity to launch such an attack, and he refused to bite. It came in a question Ifill posed to Edwards:
Ten men and women have been nominees of their parties since 1976 to be vice president. Out of those ten, you have the least governmental experience of any of them.
What qualifies you to be a heartbeat away?
Edwards defended his experience, as anyone presented with such a loaded question would. And then she turned to a visibly surprised Cheney and asked him to comment on Edwards’ record:
IFILL: Mr. Vice President, you have 90 seconds.
CHENEY: You want me to answer a question about his qualifications?
IFILL: That was the question.
CHENEY: I see.
In other words, she was pitching him a nice, slow softball right over the plate: 90 seconds to wax rhapsodic on the shortcomings of John Edwards. Remarkably, though, Cheney chose not to swing:
Well, I think the important thing in picking a vice president probably varies from president to president. Different presidents approach it in different ways.
When George Bush asked me to sign on, it obviously wasn’t because he was worried about carrying Wyoming. We got 70 percent of the vote in Wyoming, although those three electoral votes turned out to be pretty important last time around.
What he said he wanted me to do was to sign on because of my experience to be a member of the team, to help him govern, and that’s exactly the way he’s used me.
And I think from the perspective of the nation, it’s worked in our relationship, in this administration. I think it’s worked in part because I made it clear that I don’t have any further political aspirations myself. And I think that’s been an advantage.
I think it allows the president to know that my only agenda is his agenda. I’m not worried about what some precinct committeemen in Iowa were thinking of me with respect to the next round of caucuses of 2008.
It’s a very significant responsibility when you consider that at a moment’s notice you may have to take over as president of the United States and make all of those decisions. It’s happened several times in our history.
And I think that probably is the most important consideration in picking a vice president, somebody who could take over.
In response to Ifill practically begging him to slam Edwards, Cheney chose instead to talk about his own relationship with President Bush!
Why would he pass up an opportunity like that? If the moderator gives you 90 seconds to lay the smack down on your opponent, why not take them? Especially if you’re the attack dog?
I don’t know what was going on in Cheney’s head at that moment. But it certainly seemed to me that his entire attitude softened considerably after Edwards chose not to use his daughter as a club with which to beat him. Maybe that’s what led Cheney to ease up when the opportunity came to swing a club of his own.
UPDATE: Well, that was fast — Kos has two examples of Cheney appearing in public with Edwards in the past. So much for the “I never met you until tonight” line.
Why would Cheney make a lie so obviously easy to expose? It’s almost pathological — reality need not get in the way of a good zinger.