Man, Dick Cheney’s gonna be pulling chunks of John Edwards out of his stool for months after tonight’s debate.
I had not, you may recall, planned on watching tonight’s debate, or any of today’s playoff games; I started an arbitration today, which had been projected to run the rest of the week. I won’t go into details here except to say that it only took one day of hearings to bring the case to a successful conclusion, leaving me unexpectedly free, after hearing a few innings of the Yankees-Twins game, to catch the back end of the debate on radio and TV and then catch up on the rest on tape and transcript.
My impressions? Well, as I said at the time, I thought the first presidential debate was pretty good; Bush was solid but far too slow to respond to Kerry’s attacks; Kerry was at the top of his game, albeit due to throwing out a lot of falsehoods.
Tonight’s debate was even better (as debates often are when the candidates are sitting down) – these guys weren’t afraid to mix it up, and frankly called each other liars quite often (Cheney: “Well, Gwen, it’s hard to know where to start; there are so many inaccuracies there.”). Now, some people really do think most of what Dick Cheney says is lies. You can’t reach those people. But to anybody else, it had to be obvious that Cheney won this one, and the Kerry camp had to be hoping that a lot of people were watching the baseball game instead. Cheney was on top of just everything, very fast on his feet, he was calm, deliberate, and serious.
Edwards, meanwhile: well, to those of us who are practicing litigators, Edwards is a recognizable type – the lawyer who’s great in front of juries, where he gets to control the narrative, but not so hot in front of judges, because he keeps trying to launch into an emotional closing argument instead of answering questions. Here’s a perfect example:
IFILL: Part of what you have said and Senator Kerry has said that you are going to do in order to get us out of the problems in Iraq is to internationalize the effort.
Yet French and German officials have both said they have no intention even if John Kerry is elected of sending any troops into Iraq for any peacekeeping effort. Does that make your effort or your plan to internationalize this effort seem kind of naive?
EDWARDS: Well, let’s start with what we know. What we know is that the president and the vice president have not done the work to build the coalition that we need — dramatically different than the first Gulf War. We know that they haven’t done it, and we know they can’t do it.
They didn’t, by the way, just reject the allies going into lead- up to the war. They also rejected them in the effort to do the reconstruction in Iraq, and that has consequences.
What we believe is, as part of our entire plan for Iraq — and we have a plan for Iraq.
As far as spin goes, by the way, by my count of the transcript Edwards referred to Kerry’s Thursday debate performance six times (“The American people saw John Kerry on Thursday night. They don’t need the vice president or the president to tell them what they saw. They saw a man who was strong, who had conviction, who is resolute . . . “). The Kerry folks either think or want us to think that Kerry was so dominating in that debate that the election’s over. Nice try.
Cheney did a particularly good job of coming back to the points in Kerry’s record where he actually had to make decisions and made the wrong ones, and got in a solid zinger early that turned out to be just a warmup:
A little tough talk in the midst of a campaign or as part of a presidential debate cannot obscure a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues.
He repeated this later:
Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. There isn’t.
And you cannot use “talk tough” during the course of a 90-minute debate in a presidential campaign to obscure a 30-year record in the United States Senate and, prior to that by John Kerry, who has consistently come down on the wrong side of all the major defense issues that he’s faced as a public official.
Edwards, by contrast – go back and look at what he said – lapsed into lawyer-speak trying to defend Kerry’s record:
He said that — made mention of this global test. What John Kerry said — and it’s just as clear as day to anybody who was listening — he said: We will find terrorists where they are and kill them before they ever do harm to the American people, first.
We will keep this country safe. He defended this country as a young man, he will defend this country as president of the United States.
He also said very clearly that he will never give any country veto power over the security of the United States of America.
Now, I know the vice president would like to pretend that wasn’t said, and the president would too. But the reality is it was said.
Yeah, the testimony’s in the record. Unfortunately, so is Kerry’s record and his past statements. As usual, the only way to defend Kerry is to try to deny the existence of his position; to defend it in a way that is distinguishable from the president’s is to stand on indefensible turf. Democrats want to say that they would get more allies before going to war, without recognizing the corollary – that they would have let the absence of certain allies stop them from doing what they otherwise claim they believe should have been done. (Cheney’s use of Kerry’s 1991 vote reminds us that this is pretense – there’s always an excuse not to do something).
Probably Cheney’s best moments, just as Bush had his best catching Kerry denigrating the role of allies like Poland, were when he cleaned up something Bush should have responded to on Thursday, when Edwards trotted out the talking point about the US supposedly bearing 90% of the costs and 90% of the casualties in Iraq. First, this:
Well, Gwen, the 90 percent figure is just dead wrong. When you include the Iraqi security forces that have suffered casualties, as well as the allies, they’ve taken almost 50 percent of the casualties in operations in Iraq, which leaves the U.S. with 50 percent, not 90 percent.
With respect to the cost, it wasn’t $200 billion. You probably weren’t there to vote for that. But $120 billion is, in fact, what has been allocated to Iraq. The rest of it’s for Afghanistan and the global war on terror.
The allies have stepped forward and agreed to reduce and forgive Iraqi debt to the tune of nearly $80 billion by one estimate. That, plus $14 billion they promised in terms of direct aid, puts the overall allied contribution financially at about $95 billion, not to the $120 billion we’ve got, but, you know, better than 40 percent. So your facts are just wrong, Senator.
Then, when Edwards tried to defend his exclusion of the Iraqis in the field from the casualty figures:
CHENEY: Classic example. He won’t count the sacrifice and the contribution of Iraqi allies. It’s their country. They’re in the fight. They’re increasingly the ones out there putting their necks on the line to take back their country from the terrorists and the old regime elements that are still left. They’re doing a superb job. And for you to demean their sacrifices strikes me as…
EDWARDS: Oh, I’m not…
CHENEY: … as beyond…
EDWARDS: I’m not demeaning…
CHENEY: It is indeed. You suggested…
EDWARDS: No, sir, I did not…
CHENEY: … somehow they shouldn’t count, because you want to be able to say that the Americans are taking 90 percent of the sacrifice. You cannot succeed in this effort if you’re not willing to recognize the enormous contribution the Iraqis are increasingly making to their own future.
CHENEY: We’ll win when they take on responsibility for governance, which they’re doing, and when the take on responsibility for their own security, which they increasingly are doing.
And, of course, the evening’s killer line about Kerry and to a lesser extent Edwards zigging to the left on the war last fall:
I couldn’t figure out why that happened initially. And then I looked and figured out that what was happening was Howard Dean was making major progress in the Democratic primaries, running away with the primaries based on an anti-war record. So they, in effect, decided they would cast an anti-war vote and they voted against the troops.
Now if they couldn’t stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al Qaeda?
Naturally, I also liked how Cheney drew together the strands of Zarqawi and the Palestinian suicide bombers and how they all trace back to Saddam.
I wasn’t surprised to see Edwards run on and on about Halliburton; it’s sometimes all the Democrats have to cling to. Although Cheney took the same shots back at Edwards later by tweaking him for using tax loopholes to avoid Medicare taxes, a picayune point but one that reminds the viewer that these guys all have advantages we don’t.
Cheney got in another great prepared dig at Edwards’ puny record and poor attendance in the Senate, even though it was out of place in answer to the question about Israel:
Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session.
The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.
The domestic policy stuff was a bit dreary by comparison – it’s hard to follow war-and-peace issues with domestic stuff without gearing down a bit – but provided more entertainment. After some back and forth in which Cheney and Edwards competed to see who could look most uncomfortable talking about gay marriage, we got this exchange. Edwards larded on the condescending empathy for the Cheneys and their gay daughter:
Now, as to this question, let me say first that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It’s a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.
After a convoluted series of non-sequiturs from Edwards on the issue, the moderator went back to Cheney:
IFILL: Mr. Vice President, you have 90 seconds.
CHENEY: Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter.
CHENEY: I appreciate that very much.
IFILL: That’s it?
CHENEY: That’s it.
At this juncture, Cheney and Edwards reminded me of nothing so much as a father sitting at a dinner table trying to cut off some line of conversation started by a young fellow dating his daughter who was meeting the family for the first time and had brought up something inappropriate.
The tort-reform stuff was interesting, but I may get back to it another day; you could see that Edwards felt the need to play defense on that issue, which suggests that it’s playing well for the GOP:
I would be the first to say that what the vice president described a few minutes ago, problems with malpractice premiums, that’s true, it’s real. It’s very real.
My wife and I found it telling that Edwards, when he then talked with pride about his career as a trial lawyer, had to pick an example of a case that had nothing to do with medical malpractice.
Cheney also gave us a revealing admission that a Democrat would be terrified to make, in response to a statistic about AIDS among African-American women:
I have not heard those numbers with respect to African- American women. I was not aware that it was — that they’re in epidemic there, because we have made progress in terms of the overall rate of AIDS infection.
Cheney punted on directly attacking Edwards’ experience. I almost wanted to hear him say, “Senator, I know Dan Quayle. I worked with Dan Quayle. Dan Quayle is a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Dan Quayle.” Quayle, of course, had been in Congress twice as long as Edwards by 1988, and hadn’t spent most of his time there running for president.
Finally, from the closing statements, John Edwards committed a faux pas by loudly ripping a piece of paper while Cheney was talking, but then he said something that made me think:
You know, when I was young and growing up, I remember coming down the steps into the kitchen, early in the morning, and I would see the glow of the television.
Was I the only one who thought: “and there, on the TV, was Dick Cheney”?