With both men outdoing the performances of their respective better halves from last Thursday, Dick Cheney and John Edwards largely battled to a draw in an underwhelming debate last night.
Though a quick sampling of talking heads seemed to suggest an Edwards victory, most voters probably will come away with a more favorable impression of Cheney than they had coming in—something that likely won’t be the case for Edwards.
Edwards was every bit the trial lawyer—which is not necessarily an insult—in overcoming his sometimes stilted stump speeches to have a quite credible outing. He went on the offensive often, while intermittently playing nice defense for his boss.
The trial lawyer’s sharpest attacks came at the many points when he dredged up the bogeyman known as Halliburton, the energy conglomerate formerly headed by the vice-president. Perhaps as part of a tactical decision to ignore rubbish that the White House believes only appeals to the hard left, Cheney essentially ignored the potshots aimed at his former company.
There were other times when Cheney chose to ignore charges by Edwards, most notably the bit about the Bush administration “outsourcing” the hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora to Afghan warlords “who, just a few weeks before, had been working with Osama bin Laden.”
Judging from the reactions of a relative handful of (admittedly non-representative) bar patrons in Manhattan watering hole, this was the unanswered Edwards broadside that seemed to have the most impact.
Either Cheney was simply too classy to point out that tactical military decisions are—wisely—kept out of political hands in favor of the professionals who conduct warfare for a living, or the Bush administration remains flat-footed five days after Kerry first trotted out that particular line.
Cheney was hardly a wilting wallflower, however, as he provided some of the night’s best highlights. Most notable was when he raised the specter of Howard Dean, pointing out the curious primary election-timing of the original Kedwards Iraq flip-flop: “If they couldn’t stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to Al Qaeda?”
The GOP high point, however, appeared to come a little later when Cheney found a powerful, personal way to exploit the obvious Senate absences of two men running for the White House: “I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session, [and] the first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.”
That may have been an unfair dig at a man understandably busy while running for higher office, but at least it was the tactful way to do so.
Edwards’ attempt to exploit Cheney’s lesbian daughter was, to put it simply, sleazy. The liberal Democrats at the Manhattan establishment remarked, “That’s painful.” An extremely informal poll of a half dozen Kerry-Edwards supporters found universal distaste for the moment.
Refusing to dignify Edwards’ ghoulish side-show, Cheney proved the bigger man in responding, “Let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much.” When asked by moderator Gwen Ifill if that was it, the vice-president said, “That’s it.”
Which pretty much sums up Cheney’s performance: calm, cool, collected—and concise. Whereas Bush, Kerry, and Edwards seemed to wring out every last second allotted, Cheney completed many 30-second responses in less than 10 seconds.
For a man with surprisingly high negative poll numbers—no doubt due to the relentless caricatures of him by the left and the media—it was Cheney’s night to show America who he really is. He delivered.
Did Edwards still charm the media? He seemed to, but these things can change, literally, overnight. Worst case for Bush, the challengers will maintain the momentum until Friday.
Either way, the pressure is on Bush, and he needs to remind Americans why they liked him in the first place—just as Cheney did last night.