Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland–Immediately after the vice-presidential exchange concluded, I turned to the state GOP official sitting to my right to get his take. It was a good debate and Vice President Dick Cheney was strong, he told me, but he wondered how it played on television. After all, only a few hundred of us were in the room to view the debate first hand, whereas millions watched the debate–or will see debate highlights–on TV. Nonetheless, from having viewed it in the hall, I came away believing that it served an important purpose for the Bush campaign. It may not be clear who won on points; John Edwards, like Kerry, is a very skilled debater. He articulated the Democratic case well, and hit many of the Bush administration’s weak spots. Still, I’d be surprised if his performance, or the debate as a whole, did much to help Senator Kerry’s campaign.
Entering the Veale Center for the debate, there was a feeling that there was more riding on this vice-presidential debate than running-mate exchanges in the past. President Bush disappointed many with his performance in Miami, and Bush supporters wanted a strong performance from Dick Cheney to signal a rebound. Kerry supporters, on the other hand, were eager to see Senator Edwards help their ticket pick up steam. With all the anticipation, it was a bit anticlimactic when, after the candidates appeared, they immediately took their seats, without uttering a word, and began to scribble notes (something it seemed Senator Edwards would continue to do all night). At this point, the few minutes that remained until airtime seemed to drag.
From the debate’s opening moments, it was clear it would be substantive and hard fought. The opening question to Cheney was certainly tough, but he handled it well. He also landed some solid blows on Kerry’s record early on, prompting Edwards to mention Kerry’s Vietnam service less than 15 minutes into the debate. Nonetheless, Edwards also started strong, showing a much deeper understanding of foreign policy than was expected. Both men were largely consistent. Cheney stumbled a bit when answering Gwen Ifill’s question about African-American women and AIDS, but Edwards hardly nailed that answer either.
Despite Edwards’s experience as a glib advocate, the debate seemed to shift in Cheney’s direction very quickly. He didn’t pound away at every opportunity–indeed, to my mind he missed quite a few opportunities to take a swing–but he demonstrated a calm mastery of the issues and landed some solid blows. Where Edwards tried to seize every opportunity to score political points or praise Senator Kerry’s Vietnam service, debate skills, and consistency, Cheney made his points and then sat back. He was forceful, yet reserved. At times, I almost felt as if Cheney was the learned schoolteacher, forced to endure the know-it-all student in the front row ever eager to prove his worth. However smart the know-it-all is, he never knows quite as much as he thinks, so at several key points Cheney had to set the record straight.
While I may have preferred to see Cheney land an uppercut every time Edwards presented his chin, I had to wonder whether Cheney’s performance would convince television viewers that he could do the job, and that Edwards was just a pretender. There’s no question Edwards is a talented lawyer and effective public speaker, but I have a hard time believing the debate convinced many people that he is prepared to be one heartbeat away from the presidency. Edwards is a young, fresh face–but he is young and inexperienced. In another time, perhaps when the nation was not engaged in a war on terror, I could understand his appeal. Yet after September 11, it is hard to see how the contrast between Cheney’s experience, earnestness, and resolve and Edwards’s smooth-talking, youthful eagerness plays to the Democratic ticket’s benefit.
I noted some other things about the debate setting. There was not “Democrat-side” or “GOP-side” to the seating. Rather, Democrats, Republicans, and students were interspersed throughout the hall (though many students were stuck in the back). The sight lines were not always so good; with the candidates sitting at the table, Gwen Ifill sometimes obscured the view. Cheney’s microphone was also quite scratchy in the hall speakers; at a few points it almost sounded like it would go out.
Whether TV viewers saw it or not, Senator Edwards scribbled furiously throughout, turning the pages of his yellow legal pad. We could hear it loud and clear each time he tore off another page. The mikes also picked up Cheney’s occasional chuckle–or was it a slight snort?–when Edwards said something absurd. Again, it’s hard to know how some of this played on TV, but I can’t see it having the same effect as President Bush’s smirks, grimaces, and frowns. From where I sat, I never got the impression that Cheney wished to be someplace else. It just seemed he could not believe some of what Edwards was saying–and he didn’t need to rebut Edwards’s comments point-by-point to let us know.
Leaving the hall, I concluded that the vice-presidential debate certainly served its purpose. Even more than last Thursday’s presidential debate, it crystallized the differences between the candidates. The Cheney-Edwards exchange helped define the differences between the candidates, their running mates, and their governing philosophies–and this should only help President Bush. No vice-presidential debate will ever produce a knockout punch, but they can help set the tone of a campaign. In that sense, Vice President Cheney can say “Mission Accomplished.”
–NRO Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is an associate professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.