Cheney Wins, but Misses Knockout Punch

For whatever it’s worth, Vice President Dick Cheney clearly beat John Edwards in the vice presidential debate. But his performance fell well short of its potential, considering his opponent’s many and grave weaknesses that emerged last night. It was a debate in which Cheney shored up his running mate’s weak performance last Thursday, and Edwards leaned on John Kerry’s better showing as on a crutch.

From the moment Edwards offered a cheesy smile at his introduction, it was clear that he was outmatched by the grave, methodical Cheney. He did well just to get through it. Sadly, this was Cheney’s fault–he simply failed to deliver the coup de grace, letting up on the attacks about half-way through.

The expectations on Cheney are an interesting aside. A fantastic debater, he clearly bested Joe Lieberman in 2000. But for several months of this administration he became nearly silent, and meanwhile the public was subjected to an ugly campaign to ruin his name. As bad as Bush may be, Cheney is far worse–the “Spawn of Satan,” according to one left-wing tract distributed near HUMAN EVENTS’ Washington offices in recent months.

So the angry leftists who likely comprised the majority of the viewership for this debate–they couldn’t possibly miss Dick Cheney’s comeuppance regarding Halliburton–must have been upset at the result. Imagine the unwashed vegan bicycle messengers’ anger as Cheney simply oozed and inspired confidence, dismantling and even belittling Edwards in the first 40 minutes of the standoff.

From the start Cheney hammered home several key issues Bush had foolishly neglected in his own debate, including John Kerry’s 20-year Senate record of disarming America, Edwards’ “undistinguished” career in that body, and both Johns’ record as absentee senators who have between them cast a mere handful of votes over the past year.

Cheney also gave a much more effective presentation of Kerry’s inconsistent war position: “Howard Dean was…running away with the primaries based on an anti-war record,” he said. “So they, in effect, decided they would cast an anti-war vote (on the now-famous $87 billion) 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?”

(It may be of only parochial interest, but Cheney also left some clever clues for the well-read student of the Cold War. When he brought up the free elections in El Salvador, several older hippie viewers probably had to be immediately hospitalized. Recall that the American left, and especially Sen. Kerry, actively backed the Communist Sandinista regime in neighboring Nicaragua that attempted through terrorism to prevent those free elections.)

Edwards, for his part, proved that he is the lightweight everyone says he is, unable to compete with Cheney in his own right. From his very first remarks, Edwards was almost embarrassingly repeating Kerry’s catch phrases from last Thursday: “Tora Bora…more troops in September than we lost in August…We will not outsource our responsibility…We need a fresh start…” It was telling that, when asked to describe his own qualifications without referring to his running mate, Edwards was unable to do so, breaking the moderator’s rule and mentioning Kerry twice by name.

Edwards found himself repeatedly going back to prior points to defend against Cheney’s well-placed blows, to the point where he was unable to land any direct punches himself. He became irritated and flummoxed, losing his cool early on–angrily interrupting Cheney out of turn at one point–and repeating the same lines again and again. For a stretch he was looking almost as bad as President Bush did in last Thursday’s debate–in some ways perhaps worse, because he appears to be a less patient man.

Cheney even succeeded in dulling one of Edwards’ key selling points–his humble roots–by briefly describing his own modest and interesting life story, and scoring a subtle jab at the self-promoting senator to boot: “Well, I don’t talk about myself very much, but…”

The senator had a few good points–he was most effective when he talked about Cleveland’s problems with education and job loss. But in the first half hour, the few who actually watch vice presidential debates were being treated to the sight of Cheney folding Edwards over his knee and delivering a spanking that boy would remember.

Then the debate suddenly changed and became almost soporific. Cheney deflated himself and let up on the attack, instead contenting himself with directly answering the moderator’s questions and leaving Edwards to say almost whatever he liked. Some may contend that Cheney played the gentleman to an already defeated foe, but it was a mistake. It muddled what could have been a much more crushing victory.

It is too easy to be critical after the fact, but Cheney failed, for example, to use the question on Iran to mention the insanity of John Kerry’s plan of last Thursday, to give the rogue nation nuclear fuel. Despite his own personal problems with the issue, Cheney still could have pointed out the hypocrisy of the Kerry-Edwards position on homosexual marriage–with something like, “Oddly, they claim they oppose it, but they also oppose any practical steps against it.” And he could have better distinguished between a state legislative act authorizing same-sex marriage, and the imposition of the same by unelected judges, while maintaining his own ambiguous stance.

Cheney also unilaterally disarmed himself when given a golden opportunity to attack Edwards’ career as a trial lawyer, instead professing ignorance regarding the ignominious con-artist’s self-enrichment. Imagine if he had said: “Gwen, my opponent would not have made his millions peddling now-discredited medical theories in court if his proposal for medical review of malpractice cases had been in effect twenty years ago.” Or perhaps: “It’s funny that Sen. Edwards mentions the problems doctors encounter, since between his days as a trial lawyer and his record in the Senate of opposing medical malpractice reform, he’s probably done more than any single person in this country to put doctors out of business.”

There’s no question that Cheney outstripped Edwards as the proverbial “attack dog” that No.2s are supposed to be in presidential campaigns. But somewhere in the middle of the debate–perhaps when the mention of Halliburton put Cheney momentarily on the defensive–Edwards found enough traction to survive the beating intact, even if his “little yappy dog” bark was dwarfed by Cheney’s “big dog” growl.

Even as Cheney let his sails droop, Edwards remained largely ineffectual. His remark, “I don’t think the country can take four more years of this type of experience,” while witty in theory, was unwise–it indirectly made viewers think of his lack of serious background and it also just doesn’t comport with most people’s experience over the last four years. It all reinforces the idea that all the anti-Bush hysteria is just that.

Edwards’s repeated contention that Iraq had almost no relation to al Qaeda is absurd given the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission to the contrary and the revelation of new Iraqi documents that apparently suggesting extensive terror ties. Moreover, there is the fact that American fighters continue to capture hundreds of foreign terrorists–not Iraqis–in their roundups of insurgents.

Edwards’s closing statement was perhaps the worst thing about his performance–entirely insipid, and contrived: “Here’s the truth,” he said (a phrase that so frequently precedes a lie), “I have grown up in the bright light of America. But that light is flickering today. Now, I know that the Vice President and the President don’t see it, but you do.”

According to the Nielsen ratings, 1.4 million Americans laughed so hard at this line that beer came spewing out of their noses. That Edwards would even consider saying this to a national audience is a sign that John Kerry picked the wrong man.

Bush, on the other hand, was wise to pick Dick Cheney in 2000–he may be the spawn of Satan, but at least he isn’t a sappy lightweight. The only regret is that Cheney can’t sit in for Bush in Friday’s debate.