Politics & Policy

Two Fine Debaters, Performing

An assessment.

Oh, what a glorious night, that vice-presidential debate in 2000. A glorious night if you were a Republican, that is. Joe Lieberman–the Democratic nominee–did pretty well. In fact, he did darned well. But Cheney was smashing: smooth, assured, informed, grave, humorous–everything.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a happier, more comfortable 90 minutes, politically. I had a chance to tell Cheney that. (This was back in January–January of this year.) He smiled and said (basically), “Wonder who my opponent will be next fall.” His smile told me that he knew he’d done very well in 2000–and been told so a million times.

Well, he did pretty well tonight too (I write immediately post-debate). He did not do as well as he did in 2000. He looked more tired, more grim, more annoyed. He was a little less sharp, a little less crisp–less commanding. Of course, he had a four-year record to defend, and it’s been a difficult four years. Hard choices have had to be made; the economy has been through some rough-and-tumble. Frankly, maybe it’s just easier to be on the attack–to be the critic.

Cheney managed to go on the offensive some tonight; but mainly he was on the defensive.

As for John Edwards, I thought he did very, very well. He is a first-rate verbalist. Small wonder he was so successful as a trial lawyer. All in all, he may have come off as more attractive, more with-it than Cheney. And people may want a “fresh start” this year. That’s a phrase John Kerry and Edwards repeat: “fresh start.” I think this is effective, and I’ll have more to say about it farther down.

Look, if you like the Republicans, you liked Cheney. If you like the Democrats, you liked Edwards. Both men are capable debaters. But will my guy be judged outshone?

A couple of points, before I begin my notes. As before, I’m goin’ raw. I have listened to no commentary; I haven’t read any; I don’t know what the world thinks. I know only what I think.

Second, please remember that, when I write a piece like this, I do so as a critic–rather like a critic at a concert or opera. (Many of you know that this is what I do in my “other” life.) Regular readers are fully aware that I’d crawl over broken glass for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. I love both men, inordinately. And I think their reelection is immensely important to the country and world.

So, without further ado, my notes . . . in the order (basically) in which I wrote them.

Cheney and Edwards were quite different in appearance. (Duh.) Cheney was a little banker-like. Even during the introductions, he seemed a little gruff, a little drawn. Edwards looked like a million–a billion?–bucks. But I thought he seemed phony, right off the bat. When Gwen Ifill, the moderator, said his name, he smiled a sudden, I’ve-been-introduced smile. Very stagy. Cheney had simply been normal.

When asked the first question, rather than answer immediately, Cheney did the thanking thing–thanking the moderator, the sponsors, etc. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Better, one time, to answer the question, and then, at the end, do the thanking.

Why not, for a change?

Cheney has a new phrase (or at least I’ve been hearing it a lot recently): “to stand up.” We’re going to “stand up the government” in Iraq, or “stand up the police.” I don’t know how many Americans are familiar with that jargon. (They are now!)

Remember when Fritz Mondale said, in 1984, “That’s a total non-starter”? (Congressional jargon.)

Edwards spoke much more southernly than I had expected. Of course, I felt the same way during his convention speech. (I’m a newspaper-reader, I’m afraid, and seldom actually hear these guys.)

For me, in these early answers–and throughout the debate–Cheney wasn’t rhetorical enough. Wasn’t inspired enough. He was too small-bore, too factual, in a way. I wish he had injected a little more poetry, a little more sweep. And, like the president, he failed to connect our current activities abroad with 9/11–in any meaningful way. He never said that Iraq was a war of self-defense. “We didn’t do it because we wanted to; we did it because we thought we had to. Here’s why . . .”

That’s what I’m talkin’ about!!!

When Edwards said, “They can see it on their televisions”–Americans can see on their TVs that the occupation is going badly–he had a point. That is what Americans see. (Bernard Lewis, the Middle East scholar, said that if you build ten bridges in Iraq and one is blown up, the blown-up one will make the news, not the others.) A smart tactic, from Edwards.

In this early going, Edwards’s answers sounded exactly like Kerry’s–they came from the same briefing book, or talking-points list. But that’s okay.

And if Cheney thought, during the presidential debate, “W. should have answered this way”–he had an opportunity to answer exactly that way. Because the same words came from both Dem candidates.

Over and over, Edwards said that the administration had not told the truth. Basically, he called them liars, all night long. I was hoping Cheney would respond to that even once–with a little indignation, with a “How dare you?” But no.

While I’m wishing: I wish Cheney had done more going back to the 9/10 era and explained why we couldn’t keep doing business the same way–a pinprick here, a pinprick there. We did nothing in answer to the Cole. The public needs to be reminded of that sort of thing. Cheney should have gone more for broader context.

They say that Cheney isn’t likeable–not nearly as likeable as Edwards. Hell, I like him, a lot. Then again, I love Phil Gramm–a politician who is supposed to define unlikeability.


Edwards repeated one of Kerry’s standard lines: “I [or he] defended this country as a young man, and I [or he] will defend it now.” So–35 years later–these guys contend that fighting in Vietnam equaled defending the United States?

Edwards did as good a job as possible of defending Kerry’s “global test” mistake. (And if not for that “global test,” last Thursday night would have been an even more lopsided affair than it was.)

I’m thinking, “Kerry should be very, very pleased with his running-mate, for the defense of him he is mounting.”

I thought Cheney’s El Salvador answer was terrific: The Salvadorans fought for democracy and braved bullets to vote. What he did not say was that Kerry had opposed these efforts all the way–that he has been a Latin America lefty (and a lefty in every other respect). He never said that Kerry was one of Reagan’s biggest foes–and Kerry had the gall to cite Reagan, positively, on Thursday night!

Edwards to Gwen Ifill: “Yes, ma’am.” Very good. Very, very effective.

I thought Cheney should have done more to talk up Bush (he did more at the end). Edwards talked up Kerry at every turn.

At about 9:20, I made this note: Cheney looks bitter, vexed–not serene. (And Cheney is known for serenity.)

Cheney says “where you’re at”–good, colloquial, American English.

One of Edwards’s most effective tactics was to say that the American people had seen John Kerry for themselves on Thursday night, so what were they going to believe? Bush-Cheney rhetoric against Kerry, or their own eyes and ears? Very, very effective–putting Kerry’s excellent performance to good use; weakening the power of Republican accusations.

Hail Cheney for taking on Kerry’s foreign-policy record, particularly on the Gulf War. (Kerry had used Bush 41 against GWB over and over.) Cheney might have said, “Hell, even Al Gore voted for the Gulf War. So did Joe Lieberman. Frankly, the Democrats were better last time around.”

“If you can’t stand up to Howard Dean, you can’t stand up to al Qaeda.” (I paraphrase.) Maybe the best line of the night. And you know why? Not because it was so clever; because it was true–the reason Kerry and Edwards voted against that $87 billion appropriation was that Howard Dean was running a fanatically anti-war race and making great progress.

Cheney never offered a defense of Halliburton–too bad.

Where Edwards dwelled on the U.N., Cheney might have nailed him–talked about how atrocious the U.N.’s performance has been. And Americans should be proud of the U.S., standing up to that absurd, dictator-filled body.

But no.

I believe Edwards pronounced the word “height” “heighth”–with a “th” at the end, as in “length.” Good for him. That’s the way many of my fellow Michiganders do it, too.

I will pause for a generality: All night long, each man was good at zeroing in on the other’s weaknesses. Both sides have weaknesses; the candidates found them.

A good moment for Cheney: recalling the recent Allawi speech before Congress and the Democrats’ shabby attitude toward it.

As Edwards went on–and on–about the burden Americans are bearing, Cheney never thought to say, “You know what? We are America. We have some responsibilities in the world.” Maybe that was risky, but . . .

When Edwards brought up the insurgents–the beheaders–Cheney might have said, “Well, what about those beheaders, Senator Edwards? What are you going to do about them? Ask Jacques Chirac to tell them to be nice?”

I noticed that Edwards spoke superbly well, but without–it seemed to me–a grasp of key political concepts. Cheney spoke less well, but with a firm grasp on those concepts.

Does that make any sense? Probably not, but I’m not pausing to elaborate.

In talking about Zarqawi, Cheney was far too specific–getting into the weeds, I think. He should have gone to the overarching idea of the 9/10 world versus the 9/11 world. And speaking of terrorists in Iraq, how about a mention of Abu Abbas, the Achille Lauro mastermind (who lived out his life in the care of Saddam Hussein)? How about a reminder of Leon Klinghoffer, dumped into the sea in his wheelchair, for being a Jew? Huh, huh?

When the vice-president said “ricin,” it sounded a lot like “rice.”

I thought Cheney’s response concerning Iran sanctions was excellent–boffo. I feared he was trapped; he wasn’t.

Cheney happened to mention that Saddam had violated U.N. resolutions for twelve years. I wish he had said, “And this is what Kerry refers to as a ‘rush to war.’”

I like that Cheney says “Brits.” He also says “Paks” (but not tonight).

When Cheney talked about Libya, and about how Qadaffi stood down, he should have placed an emphasis on Bush: Bush did that, George W. Bush did that. John Kerry couldn’t have done it, not on your life.

Can you believe what Edwards said about Iran? About Iran’s nuclear drive? That the administration had “ceded responsibility for dealing with it to the Europeans”? It may be true, but can you imagine Democrats saying it?

Well, Edwards did.

No, this might have been the best line of the night: When Cheney said, “I can’t do it in 30 seconds,” and Ifill retorted, “That’s all you got.” It was sort of emasculating too, frankly.

Why didn’t Cheney praise Halliburton as a great company, doing spectacularly hard work? When Cheney offered no rebuttal to the allegations about Halliburton, the moderator bounced back to Edwards for another 30 seconds, during which Edwards simply repeated the charges. So the charges got made twice, amply. And the rebuttal of them got made–never.

When Ifill asked her question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said (something like), “Just the other day, Israel killed a leader of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.” I think one of the candidates should have murmured, “Great.”

When Edwards began his Israel story, he said, “A couple of years ago–no, actually, three years ago . . .” Very, very effective. Makes him seem scrupulous. Super-honest. And what he had to say about Israel, generally? Very, very effective. (I keep using that phrase, don’t I? Guess I’m a repeater, like W.)

Edwards pronounced “Sbarro” in three syllables. (Just noting.)

It seemed to me, in his answer–I can’t judge its sincerity–he was making a major, major play for the Jewish vote, into which Republicans have, seemingly, made inroads.

Cheney gave an okay answer on Israel, but again, there was nothing broad, nothing fundamental–such as, “It’s hard for left-liberals like John Kerry to stand up to people like the PLO, who are styled Third World revolutionaries.”

As for the veep’s attack on Edwards’s Senate attendance record, does anyone care?

Another Cheney line: “Saddam’s no longer in business.” Very nice.

Frankly, Edwards made the Democratic ticket seem more pro-Israel than the Republican ticket. (Hey, maybe that will win back some paleocon votes!) Might have been nice if Cheney had mentioned that, in the eight years of Clinton, Arafat was the most frequent foreign visitor to the White House–even more than Chinese arms dealers! But no more.

When Edwards recited that list of horribles against Cheney–he voted against the Department of Education, he voted against Martin Luther King–Cheney said nothing. Nothing. He could have tried something like, “I guess I’m just the Grinch That Stole Christmas.”

Cheney tried to tell Gwen Ifill that she was giving a question to the wrong person–and he was in error. Dumb. Dumb to have tried to direct traffic in the first place.

Oh, sure, Cheney mentioned Ted Kennedy–but favorably! As a supporter of No Child Left Behind!

When Edwards says that what Bush and Cheney promise is more of the same, he’s right. And that may hurt.

On the question of jobs and poverty, Edwards was outstanding–and he made Cheney seem like he was ducking.

Said Edwards, “The administration says over and over again that the outsourcing of jobs is good.” Um, I think Greg Mankiw blurted out this truth once–and, since then, not a peep, from anybody. Maybe I’m wrong.

When Cheney used “data” in the singular, I was just a little–a little–disappointed.

Edwards said, several times, “Now, I want everyone to hear this,” or some version of it–and it seemed to me a little condescending. Will others take it that way?

When it was Cheney’s turn to speak, he used “Gwen” as a throat-clearing and thought-forming mechanism. He was not ready with his answers; Edwards always was.

Cheney was truly wonderful on the upper bracket, tax cuts, small business, and jobs–truly wonderful. It may have been his best answer of the night.

The veep could have done a helluva lot more to defend the president’s position on the Federal Marriage Amendment–even if he disagrees with it. There was no takedown of activist, out-of-control, usurpatious judges.

When Edwards spoke of “millionaires sitting by their swimming polls,” he might have been talking to a jury–a jury of boobs. Viewers should have felt condescended to; did they?

What Edwards said about the Cheneys’ gay daughter: As he was saying it, he was informing a lot of people–millions?–that the Cheneys have a gay daughter. Hmm. Was that a little sly? Or am I being all dark?

In talking about gay marriage, Edwards was very, very smart, in that he went for the soft stuff: hospitalization, funeral arrangements. We can all agree on those, right? Very, very smart.

Edwards was superb on the subject of lawsuits–he sounded more anti-lawsuit than Cheney did. And he scored with his five-year-old poster child–they always score, with these children.

And Edwards, the plaintiff’s attorney, sounded more pro-doctor than Cheney! “The doctors are gettin’ squeezed,” etc.

Throughout the evening, Cheney seemed to be remembering and reciting facts; Edwards was better able to weave the research into overall talk.

In his answer on AIDS, Cheney left out any mention of values, personal responsibility, and so on. Maybe that was right, politically. I don’t know.

In fact, very little of “the culture” was addressed tonight.

At about 10:15, Edwards looked fresh as a daisy, rarin’ for more. Cheney looked about done, wanting out of there.

Sometimes, Cheney covered his mouth as he was talking, inadvertently muffling himself.

When the veep said that Wyoming’s three electoral votes had turned out to be pretty important, I said, “Uh-oh–we don’t want to open the Florida can of worms, do we?”

About the differences between the two candidates, I wish Cheney had been a little self-deprecating, as he has been in the past: “Well, I don’t have the hair, the teeth, the smile, the flat stomach . . .” In truth, that wouldn’t have been self-deprecation; that would have been an anti-Edwards attack.

Edwards seemed very loose, very easy, when he said, “Oops, I broke the rule.” (This was when Ifill asked the candidates not to mention Bush or Kerry.) Then, in a later answer, Edwards said, “I can use his name now.” Well done, I’m afraid.

And Edwards was awfully good in defending Kerry against the charge of flip-flopping, and making the Republicans seem like the flip-floppers.

Cheney could have done far better on the “uniter, not a divider” question. He might have said something about Bush hatred, about Michael Moore, about MoveOn.org, about all these crazies the Democrats have embraced–Michael Moore sits with Jimmy Carter in the presidential box; MoveOn.org radicals work at Kerry-Edwards headquarters. “They say we’re liars, they say we’re warmongers, they say we’re greedy for oil–it’s hard to get lovey with such people.”

When Cheney talked about domestic policy, he made no mention of ownership-society stuff–no Social Security reform, no Health Savings Accounts. It was all, “We’re spending a lot. Ain’t it grand?”

That shouldn’t cut it.

To me, Edwards’s closing statement was a little cornponey–but maybe it reaches others.

As for Cheney’s closing statement, I noticed that the veep didn’t thank his opponent, as Edwards had. Will people consider that ungracious? And the statement was unsmooth–not like 2000 (o holy night).

And, did you catch Cheney’s unusual pronunciation of “Taliban”? Might have gotten it from Karzai, I don’t know.

Unless I’m mistaken, neither man did the “God bless America” thing.

Friends, I’d like to end with two biggish points. It seems that, year after year, election after election, Democrats campaign in such a way as to hide their true beliefs–they’re trying to sell themselves as something they’re really not. Republicans, by and large, are true to their beliefs, for better or worse. Democrats act like America is a conservative country–one in which they have to fudge, in order to get elected.

Last, I want to emphasize this point of change–the Democrats’ promise of a “fresh start.” Back in 1992, I was working at a golf course, and there was this guy–star football player–who was for Clinton. We had this routine. I’d say, “Why, John? Why are you for Clinton?” And he’d say, “Time for a change.” And I’d say, “What do you like about Clinton? Why do you think Bush should be ousted?” And he’d say–grinning, stubborn–”Time for a change.” And I’d say, “But Johnny, what if the change were, ‘Everyone gets an arm chopped off’? What if the change were, ‘Everyone’s first born will be killed’? Shouldn’t the content of the change matter?” And, unmoving, he’d say, “Time for a change.”

People may think that the news on their screens and in their papers is bad–repeatedly bad. And maybe they’ll think like my boy John.

Hope not.


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