October 5, 2004

May the best man of the best man win.

I'm going to simulblog the Vice Presidential Debate , so I'll number my posts, with each new number representing an update.

1. Bremer's not-enough-troops statement leads off, in a question to VP Cheney. Cheney plugs in his prepared statement about Iraq: Iraq was "the most likely nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction." The war in Iraq was "exactly the right thing to do," and he'd recommend it all over again if he had the chance. Pay no attention to that Bremer behind the curtain! Cheney had nothing to say about Bremer at all.

2. Edwards, similarly, plugs in his prepared material about Iraq. (Poor Bremer is not getting the attention he might have wanted ... or not.) Edwards says lines I think I remember Kerry saying last week. "We lost more troops in September than we lost in August, we lost more troops in August than ..." The litany of defeatism. People have died, people have died. When I turn on NPR in the morning, the first thing I hear is nearly always the number of persons who just died in Iraq, almost never in a context connecting those deaths to what they fought for, just dismal, hopeless death. Edwards takes that tack. "Iraq is a mess"--the grand simplification. A mess! And McCain agrees with me--Edwards asserts. McCain's not there to protest, but Cheney will do it for him most likely. [He never does.] Edwards does have a line in there about Bremer. But most of it (as with Cheney) is the phoned-in prepared Iraq material.

3. Cheney rebuts, and the split-screen shows Edwards blinking furiously. Nervous? Or just contact lenses? Edwards then gets rebuttal time and he seems all charged up as he says there's no connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, which is, again, totally phoned-in, because Cheney said nothing about the connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. Cheney spoke only about progress in Iraq (the refutation of "Iraq is a mess.")

4. Gwen Ifill--who's wearing a terrific blue jacket with dramatically curved lapels--asks Edwards--who's wearing a standard dark gray suit, red tie, and, for originality, light blue shirt--whether, if he and Kerry had been in office, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. Good question, but of course he has to say no. The only interest here is in how artfully he frames his no. Like Bush last week he mixes up the names of the nemeses: "Saddam ... I mean ... uh ... Osama bin Laden ..." How did bin Laden get into the answer? He plugged in his material about botching the war in Afghanistan, which is tangentially related to refocusing attention on Iraq. But allowing the Northern Alliance to take the lead in Tora Bora was not done because of Iraq. It was simply the preferred strategy for Tora Bora (even if, in hindsight, it was bad). Edwards characterizes Iraq as a diversion, as if that is why we failed to capture bin Laden in Tora Bora. This seems to say that we shouldn't have gone into Iraq, finally approaching Ifill's question. Now, he's getting all harsh on the no connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11th point, but he's the one who dragged Osama bin Laden into the answer to a question that was only about Iraq. And, most importantly, he never answered Ifill's question! He never said whether he and Kerry would have left Saddam Hussein in power. He never even got in that "no" I assumed he'd have to say. He just wandered over to something else he wanted to talk about and hoped we wouldn't notice.

5. Cheney: "They are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. ... 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. And they give absolutely no indication, based on that record, of being willing to go forward and agressively pursue the war on terror ..." This is the first blow that lands in this fight, I think.

6. Ifill, showing her scripting, raises the question of Afghanistan, which Edwards just pre-answered. But this question is to Cheney, who points out that Afghanistan is four days from an election, and that two and a half years ago, Edwards announced that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating and chaotic. So: Edwards was defeatist, calling Afghanistan a mess too soon, and (we may infer) he's prematurely giving up on Iraq. Edwards cocks his head to the side and gives a quick smile. He needs a comeback. But Edwards merely repeats the accusation that Tora Bora was handled wrong and that Iraq was a diversion. He then consumes the rest of his time defending John Kerry over the "global test" proposal made in last week's election. But I want a response that has something to do with the GOOD Dick Cheney just claimed we achieved in Afghanistan. It's as if Edwards is programmed to keep telling us that everything went bad. But is nothing good? Is it not good that there will be an election in Afghanistan and that women will vote and so forth as Cheney just said? Ah--Edwards pooh-poohs the "rosy scenario" that Cheney paints about Afghanistan (and Iraq): Afghanistan is growing 75% of the world's opium! There are warlords! Not every place is secure! Cheney slams back, comparing Afghanistan to El Salvador: we succeeded against terrorists there because people aspire to democratic self rule. Edwards responds to this by suddenly switching to the topic of Iran, and I'm thinking that Ifill is cursing Edwards to herself, as he introduces another topic that she had planned in her questions.

7. Ifill's next question, to John Edwards, is about Kerry's "global test" proposal, which Edwards has already addressed out of place in two previous questions. There really is a clear answer on the "global test" point, but Edwards is not making it crisply. Cheney is gathering steam now. His arms are crossed on the desk and his head is down and wagging from side to side as he makes each point. Some of his points are preplanned (voting for the war and against the war; wrong war, wrong place, wrong time). Now he's marking out his points, patting with his palm in spots along the surface of the desk. "There's no indication at all that John Kerry has the conviction to successfully carry through on the war on terror." Edwards rebuts: this is a "complete distortion." The proof? "The American people saw John Kerry on Thursday night." So, yes, Kerry did a good job in the debate last week, and he said strong things, which, if that was all we knew, would make us think he was going to be tough on the war on terrorism. But Cheney's point is that if you look at Kerry's long record, it doesn't back up that tough stance. Edwards is saying: ignore that record, remember how Kerry won the debate last week?

8. Would it be dangerous to have Kerry as President? Ifill asks. Cheney: he's not aggressive enough! He was against fighting Saddam Hussein in 1991. He voted against funding of the current Iraq war because he was caving in to pressure from the Dean anti-war candidacy in the primaries. If he couldn't stand up even to Dean, how can we trust him to be tough enough?

9. Is it believable that Kerry can bring together a coalition of foreign nations at this late point in the war? Ifill asks Edwards. His answer is scattered. How can it not be? Who believes there is anything that Kerry could do beginning in January that would bring in more allies? Edwards--using the politician's pointing thumb--switches to another topic. Lack of body armor! Cheney: "It's hard, after John Kerry referred to our allies as 'a coalition of the coerced and the bribed' to go out and persuade them to send troops and participate in the process." You can't say "wrong place, wrong war, wrong time" and "oh, by the way, send troops." Of course, this is exactly what Bush said last week, but Cheney's solidity here is impressive. Now, he plays what I consider his ace: our most important ally is Allawi, and when he was here, speaking to the Congress, Kerry "demeaned him, challenged his credibility." Edwards answer is, first, about money. The first Gulf War cost five billion dollars, he says, holding up five fingers. The current war, "200 billion and counting." Second, 90 percent of the casualities are American. Cheney's answer: "He won't count the sacrifice and the contribution of our Iraqi allies." This fits with the point about Allawi: you want allies, the Iraqis are our allies! John Edwards looks upset by this response, but he does not get a rebuttal.

10. Edwards uses the next question for rebuttal of the previous question, but it is an unmemorable mix of previous points about how badly things are going in Iraq. The question on the table is about intelligence. The next question is about sanctions on Iran. I'm beginning to feel a bit sorry for Edwards. Cheney is an intimidating presence, and, frankly, he's kicking Edwards's butt. Ah, the first mention of Halliburton. Cheney: Halliburton is a smokescreen. Go to Factcheck.com for the facts! [ADDED: That should be Factcheck.org.]

11. In answer to a question about Israel, Edwards tries to tell what he characterizes as a personal anecdote. It's the story of Israelis killed by a suicide bomber. Children are killed. Cheney goes back to Halliburton, but then he doesn't really. He just says Halliburton is a smokescreen (again) and Edwards has an undistinguished record as a Senator. Just forget about Ifill, why don't you? She wanted to talk about Israel, but screw it! Let's just plug in the material about all the votes Edwards missed as Senator! Cheney is in the Senate, as the President of the Senate, almost every Tuesday, and the first time he ever met Edwards is tonight! Ouch! Edwards successfully stifles any reaction. Cheney deigns to answer Ifill's question about Israel: Saddam Hussein paid Palestinian suicide bombers' families. Edwards rebuts: Cheney voted against Headstart back when he was in the House! Against Meals on Wheels! Against the Martin Luther King holiday!

12. Finally, the foreign policy section is over. And the question is: what are you going to do about Cleveland? (They are in Cleveland.) Cheney cites No Child Left Behind; education is key. Edwards subtly scoffs at Cheney for talking about education when the question was really jobs and poverty. Of course, Cheney probably really does think education is the right approach to the problem, but Edwards is somewhat successful at making the education strategy seem cold and heartless. Edwards asserts that the administration is "for outsourcing jobs." They think it's good! Cheney's rebuttal praises tax cuts. Edwards rebuts bringing Iraq back into the picture to fit with a planned punchline: "I don't think the country can take four more years." He leans over toward Cheney with an insouciant smile on his face. Cheney glances back and gives him the stink eye.

13. Taxes. The usual positions are taken.

14. Same sex "unions." Cheney: traditionally it's been an issue for the states, but Massachusetts has acted, and the President thinks it's the "wrong way to go, and I support the President." Edwards has a great opening here, but he loses momentum by going back to tax policy, which was (I think) dully batted around on the last question. Now, Edwards goes on about Cheney loving his gay daughter and Cheney looks like he might lean over and take a bite out of Edwards. Finally, Edwards gets to the best point: we shouldn't amend the Constitution to exclude people from equal treatment! Ifill wisely comes in with the next question challenging Edwards (and Kerry) about their opposition to gay marriage. Edwards now has to say "marriage is between a man and a woman," and the distance between him and Cheney dwindles into a technicality. Now, the constitutional amendment is no longer actively offensive, it's just "unnecessary" (the theory being that one state's recognition of gay marriage is not going to exert any pressure on the other states and that there is no concern that courts might force other states to recognize that first state's marriages). And let's talk about health care and Iraq!! Cheney's "rebuttal" is just to thank Edwards for his kind words about his daughter.

15. Medical malpractice. Cheney tries to shock us with the fact that a doctor in Wyoming must pay $100,000 a year for malpractice insurance. Somehow, I don't find that number shocking. Edwards agrees that there should be fewer lawsuits and recommends an independent review of malpractice cases before they can be filed. He's against frivolous lawsuits too. This is an area where Edwards might be attacked or might also do well, but it comes off as a fairly technical issue and I don't think either man makes any headway over the other.

16. AIDS. This is a subject that does not allow either man to make much headway. Both express concern; Edwards tries to broaden the question to be more generally about the need for healthcare.

17. Ifill asks Edwards how, given his inexperience, he has the qualifications to handle the Presidency. What can Edwards do here but babble about good judgment? When it's Cheney's turn, he says, do you want me to talk about his qualifications, and he can barely suppress a grin. It's the happiest we see Cheney all night. He says, I know I was chosen because of my experience and my ability and that it had nothing to do with political ambition.

18. Why is Dick Cheney like John Edwards? That's the question now. Cheney refers to his humble beginnings. Edwards is writing a lot during this answer. At one point, he noisily rips a sheet of paper off his pad. This question seems a bit weird and pointless. A ground rule of the question is don't say the name of your running mate: Edwards breaks the rule twice. But who cares? The question seems nonexistent. Cheney doesn't even want his rebuttal time!

19. What's wrong with "a little flip-flop now and then"? This is another bad question that Edwards uses to throw out a variety of statements that he might have said at any point. Cheney, naturally, uses it to list all the inconsistent things Kerry has said and done that he can think of. Edwards might have talked about the importance of nuance and adjustment to changed conditions and new information, but he utterly ignores that opportunity, perhaps wisely.

20. How to "bridge that divide" and bring the country together? I'm getting pretty tired at this point and don't like the abstraction of this question. Nevertheless, I'm a bit irritated when Edwards says a word or two in answer to the question and then just plugs in a lot of material about health care. I've noticed Edwards has looked for as many opportunities as possible to say the words "health care."

21. Finally, closing statements! Edwards says "I have grown up in the bright light of America, but that light is flickering today" and expresses a hope of bringing that light to us all. Cheney rattles off a pre-planned speech with many references to the war on terrorism.

22. Conclusion: a clear win for Cheney.

UPDATE: Here's the full transcript of the debate.

ANOTHER UPDATE: As has been widely noted, Cheney was wrong about not having met Edwards before. Why would he say that? Even assuming for the sake of argument he's willing to lie, it's so easily shown wrong that it utterly backfires. My guess is that it wasn't a preplanned zinger, at least not a carefully preplanned zinger, and that Cheney just didn't remember meeting Edwards. Even that doesn't make that much sense. Normally, you don't assert you haven't met someone, you ask if you've ever met him or you act as though maybe you have met. This is a very common social situation: people know to be careful about assuming they haven't met someone.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Looking at this clip again (via "The Daily Show"), I get the impression that Cheney could be seen as saying that he never met Edwards in the context of the Senate. That is, "met" could mean "run into" as opposed to "be introduced to for the first time." Still pretty lame, but possibly defensible on a very technical level.

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