Like most people, I had high hopes for the vice presidential debate. Instead of the incoherent Bush and the ponderous Kerry, we’d have Edwards’ lawyerly agility stacking up against Cheney’s gravitas. By that high standard, it was a pretty lousy debate. It was expected that both candidates would function largely as surrogates for their running mates, but the extent to which that was the case—to which talking points from last week were simply repeated, often verbatim—was disappointing.
Gwen Ifill was a mediocre moderator, and some of her questions were downright awful. They often played directly not to substantive issues, but to spin created by the respective campaigns. She asked a “global test” question and even a “flip-flop” question. That last one had me really incensed—I mean, even if you’re set on asking a question about Kerry’s record, could you at least avoid using the terminology carefully crafted by the RNC? I realize that Republicans have harnessed the power of language way more effectively than Democrats, but just because they succeeded in getting the flip-flop meme out there and making it stick doesn’t make it true.
Her worst question was the one where she asked them to explain their differences from each other without mentioning the names of Bush or Kerry. It was a silly little qualification to add, but what made it really bad was that it came right on the heels of another question where they had basically already done that. Consequently their answers were all over the map, though in that case one could hardly blame them.
That’s less true for many of the other answers they provided, which often ranged far and were only tangentially related to the questions. They both did it, but Edwards was more guilty of it than Cheney—and often, when he diverted like that, Edwards did it not to make some incisive new argument but to trot out the old talking points again. I don’t know, maybe in some coldly calculating electoral strategy the endless repetition pays off, but it sure made for an annoying debate.
Cheney was a cool cat. He stuck to his guns—on Iraq, on the Al Qaeda connection, on the Medicare bill, on all sorts of things where he is utterly, obviously wrong. But he has that authoritative manner that just makes it seem to make sense. That bullheadedness has gotten us into all sorts of trouble, but Cheney’s going to ride his ship into the ground. Anyone who’s inclined to believe what he has to say already will no doubt find it comforting.
I was expecting more from Edwards. He was the one in this debate to let slip some pained grimaces in response to what Cheney was saying. He was the one who occasionally misspoke. Occasionally he found his mark, like the brilliant rebuttal where he (finally) brought up Halliburton in the same breath as pointing out that Cheney as SecDef voted for the same defense cuts that he had just criticized Kerry for. But those moments were relatively few and far between.
The lowest point in the debate came up around the “90% of the cost, 90% of the casualties” statistics that Kerry brought up in the last debate. Edwards cited the casualties number as coalition casualties, and Cheney in his rebuttal critiqued it by citing a number that also accounted for Iraqi casualties (presumably those of military and law enforcement, since the Iraqi civilian casualties blow the other numbers out of the water). Edwards came back later on to clarify that the 90% referred to coalition casualties, and Cheney—I still don’t believe this—accused him of belittling the service of Iraqis. He tried to turn a numbers dispute into something else, and even put on a little show of mock outrage. Edwards should have fought back hard against that one, but he botched his response.
There were a lot of other low blows. Cheney responded to Edwards’ Halliburton attacks not with a defense of Halliburton but with attacks on Kerry’s voting record. It was a misstep, not least because it opened up Edwards to respond to that with an attack on Cheney’s voting record, including that he voted against making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. Is this true?! If the charge holds up that’s pretty bad news for Cheney, but the soft charges were flying so fast from both sides I’m inclined to remain skeptical, and wait until the smoke clears.
Edwards’s closing statement: alarmism of the “America’s light is going out” variety. Cheney’s: alarmism of the “Be afraid by very afraid” variety. Neither appealed to me much on substance, but it’s the fearmongering that I can’t forgive.
So who the heck won? Not Edwards, though I think either side’s spin machine has enough fodder to start crowing about a win. I’d give it to Cheney by a margin, but maybe not enough of a margin to break out the “draw” zone. Not enough to be decisive, which puts the spotlight back on the next presidential debate, which I may have to miss, depending on how many people show up for the Neal Stephenson book signing.
Links and post-spinfluence comments to follow.
Kevin Drum basically agrees with me. Nice to know I must be doing something right. He mentions a couple of Ifill’s other bad questions, and also comes away generally unimpressed by the whole proceeding. His followup thoughts lean a little bit more in Edwards’ favor, and his take has swayed me slightly, though not enough to call it an Edwards win. He rightly points out, though, that Edwards just needed to do OK—stacking up against a sitting VP is no small matter. The thing is, if he could have scored a decisive win, it would have put tremendous pressure on an already-weak Bush for Friday’s debate. That definitely didn’t happen.
Steve Clemons hits the nail on the head:
Cheney’s comments on the costs and casualties in the war were mostly fabricated, but Edwards—despite being armed by truth and youthful vigor—seemed steam-rolled in the end by Cheney’s convictions, rigid certainty, and righteousness.
Josh Marshall is much more upbeat about Edwards’ performance and about the debate in general.
If someone could tell me where to go to find a conservative blog with these guys’ levels of detail, sophistication, and insulation from spin, I’d appreciate it. I don’t doubt that they’re out there, but I haven’t found them yet.