Wednesday, October 06, 2004

VP Debate

Amongst the other things occupying my attention last night, I watched the VP Debate on CSPAN. I was really looking forward to this debate since John Edwards is charming, personable, and he isn't afraid to go on the attack - in a very nice way, of course, fitting with his Southern charm. His weak point is foreign policy, but he's known that for 2 years and surely he had prepared himself for the attacks that were to come from the president's right iron fist.

Sadly, though Edwards was a little better prepared, I believe he lost the debate last night. A couple of things that I wish were different. As with the presidential debates, I dislike the format of the questioning. I'd prefer more give and take and interaction between the opponents. I'd like to see more sparks fly and, let's face it, last night's debate was boring. It's too bad that Edwards and Cheney were sitting at a table as well. That happened in 2000 - why is that? Is it in deference to the VP's ability to stand for an hour and a half? If so, shouldn't we know that since the VP's health should be an issue in the discussion? If they were standing, Edwards would feel more comfortable, I believe, and it would have been even better if he could walk freely around the stage to play up to his audience in his lawyerly fashion. Instead, he was stuck behind Dick Cheney's favorite prop - the place where Cheney can put his elbows up and wipe his hands in front of his mouth as he lies through his teeth. Score one for Cheney's negotiator - James Baker. Subtract one from the Democratic negotiator for letting him get away with it again.

With that in mind, Cheney won the debate last night. To my mind, he won on 2 fronts. First, Cheney was unflappable. He appeared in control and he never waivered from being on message. A couple of times he said, "I don't know where to begin" but it didn't sound as if that was because he was stumped for an answer, but rather because he was in awe of the load of horseshit just spewed out by his opponent. Edwards, on the other paw, though he knew his material appeared slightly uncomfortable in the foreign policy questions. He came off as a little defensive when he kept going back and answering Cheney's attacks from the previous question. Edwards should have been more focused on his current question and then gone back and addressed the issue Cheney brought up. Edwards, unlike Sleeperman four years prior, did go on the attack at least. But I wish he had attacked even stronger. He missed some opportunities.

For instance, when Cheney raised the oft-told lie of Kerry and Edwards voting for the $87 billion for the troops and then voting against it, the response I would have liked to have heard would have been something like this: "Mr. Vice President (insert chuckle), there you go again. My opponent, as president of the Senate, should know what we did in those votes on the $87 billion was not hypocritical, but rather it was the moral thing to do. We voted for a version of the bill that would have had cost cutting mechanisms in other areas of government that would have paid for the $87 billion we were about to appropriate. The version of the bill that Mr. Cheney and the president supported, the Senator Kerry and I voted against, did not have any mechanism in place to pay for it. That version of the bill that passed went straight to the federal deficit. It meant that we will, under their administration, be paying for it for years to come. The costs will be passed onto our children. Now, the president and the vice president can almost be excused for their actions. Neither of them has probably had to balance a checkbook in years. But most Americans know when they sit down to balance their checkbooks each month that you have to be able to pay the bills for your spending the previous month. If you spend too much in one area, then sacrifices have to be made in other areas. So, when the president and the vice president criticize us for being fiscally responsible not only is it a distortion of our votes, but it is a lack of understanding what most Americans seem to go through each month when they pay their bills."

Wham! Smack! That's the sort of attack I'd like to have seen. There were other moments during the debate where openings existed. For instance, when Cheney said that Edwards was wrong about 90% of the casualties suffered by the allies in Iraq were Americans, Edwards should have called Cheney to the mat on his answer because Cheney expanded the range of the original question to include Iraqi security forces, which could hardly be considered part of the coalition. When Cheney defended himself on Halliburton, Edwards facts were correct, though Cheney said that they weren't. I'd wished Edwards would have fired back with, "Either you're memory isn't as good as I'd thought or you're covering yourself in case one of my friends in the legal community want to have a word with you. For an administration that said it wanted to come to Washington to bring integrity back to government, you just told a whopper."

Sadly, Edwards did not strike back hard on these and other issues. When Edwards was attacked, he often came off as a little defensive, particularly when he was defending John Kerry's votes. I think that lost it for him. Even though he did strike back, Cheney was not moved by his attacks and sometimes just lied his way around them. This brings me to my second reason that Edwards lost the debate.

Even if you disagree with me on the above statements. Even if you think that John Edwards came across as effective, that he showed a command of the issues and that he appears to be able to take the reigns as Vice President. Even if that were all true, the best you can say about the debate is that it was a draw. A draw translates into a win for Cheney.

As noted before, Cheney appeared unflappable. He appeared in command of the facts, even when lying. He appeared steady and strong. In a draw, those things win for Cheney-Bush. The swing voter that both campaigns are so desparate to woo will feel comforted by Cheney's demeanor. She'll feel confident that he's leading us in the right way and she'll feel better that the president - who was flappable in the last debate - has a good strong man behind him. She doesn't keep up on politics nor does she feel particularly informed about the issues. She wants that data spoonfed to her and she wants to feel that the people she's voting for has a vision for dealing with these burdons that she cannot take on. Cheney made her feel better about that after Bush flopped during the previous debate. Edwards did not bruise the incumbants enough to make that swing voter start to question the decision she made 4 years ago. Hence, Edwards lost.

Edwards and Kerry came into October needing to wound their opponents in each of the debates, then take those messages on the road with them. Kerry did his part last week and he set up Edwards with some sparring targets for Cheney. Unfortunately, Edwards didn't wound Cheney. This means that Kerry will need to take charge and hit just as hard, if not harder on Bush during the next debates in order to develop the momentum amongst swing voters to win in November. It's commonly stated that Kerry is a strong finisher. Last night's debate pointed out that he's going to have to be, if he wants to be sworn into a new office come January.

Interesting side note about the debate: Cheney rarely mentioned the president. He used the terms "we", "this administration", "our", "I", and so on, but he almost never mentioned President Bush. The subliminal message being that he is part of or leader of a team. The team is steady and it is strong. The president is the figurehead of that team. It reinforces a notion that many Americans already have: the president is a dimwit, so of course he's going to screw up in the debates, however Cheney is the policy brain behind the president and he will see us through the dark times. Amongst liberals, this is considered to be a defect for the President. Amongst conservatives, they see the president as a leader who knows how to hire good employees. Last night, Cheney made no attempts to hide this which says to me that they either knew that they were in trouble and felt this would bolster them or that they felt most Americans would understand the conservative position.

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