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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Score

I watched the Vice Presidential Debate twice last night, once while playing NTN and sometimes checking the Yankees/Twins game in a crowd of people, and once more at home with my undivided attention.

The web polls when I looked at them leaned strongly to Sen. Edwards, but this didn't match what either the chattering classes were saying on television, or my own observations. I had the debates called as roughly a draw, and this CNN story seems to bear that out.

I was more impressed with Edwards the second time through, as I noticed less his deviations from the set debate format. I missed that Cheney had broken with protocol first, as he used a question about Israel to discuss a number of issues unconnected to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

There were times during the first half of the debate when it looked like Edwards was really getting to the Vice President, going after Halliburton's record of shady dealings, the numerous times Cheney and other Administration mouthpieces implied connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, and the difficult situation in Iraq.
Cheney hit back on what are obviously the Democrats' main stumbling block, foreign policy issues. The Bush/Cheney campaign is focusing on the notion that it would be "risky" to make a change in the White House this November, and Edwards' relative newness to the Wwashington scene makes this meme more plausible to more people.
They believe that this meme will inoculate them from their vulnerability on most domestic issues, and from dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq.

Consequently, it's the job of the Kerry/Edwards campaign not only to keep domestic issues on voters' minds, but to present a level-headed approach to foreign policy and security policy. That's why scoring points about inadequate security at points of vulnerability is critical.

Cheney, however, had no answer to some of Edwards' best zingers of the night:
* Edwards delivered an attack on a string of Cheney's House votes - against Head Start, against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, against a ban on plastic guns designed to evade metal detectors. Some of these positions, unpopular when they were adopted, look even worse now than they did at the time. Cheney didn't even try to respond.
* On two different occasions, Edwards pointed out that the administration initially opposed the creation of an independent commission to study the 9/11 attacks. He also noted that they opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department (until they were able to turn the proposal into a back-door attack on worker protection for government employees.)

Those of us in the know might have been annoyed that Edwards hit (after Kerry did once) on the lack of a connection between Saddam/Iraq and 9/11 no fewer than three times, but that appears to be an important issue on which there is much confusion. If you believe in a strong connection between Saddam/Iraq and 9/11, you're with Bush all the way; if you don't, you're much more likely to want Bush out of office. And lots of people simply aren't in the know on this issue.

The argument over the failure to recruit an effective coalition got bogged down on an argument about whether to count Iraqi forces as part of "coalition forces." Either way, the same number of Americans are dead or wounded, and the same number of taxpayer dollars that could have spent helping rebuild our own economy, our public health system, or fighting real terrorist threats are being spent in Iraq and that while many of these costs were borne by other nations during the first Persian Gulf War, they are by and large falling to Americans in this one. This new Republican technique of claiming that Iraqis are somehow gravely insulted by Democrats pointing out that things there are not all sweetness and light in their country shouldn't work, though no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Another line of theirs, that claiming that the Iraq war wasn't a great idea will hurt America's standing and credibility in the world strikes me as a case of trying to lock the barn door after the cows were stolen. Furthermore, George W. Bush's and Dick Cheney's advice about staying on the good side of world opinion belongs in the same circular file as Drew Carey's advice about high fashion.

Cheney hit Edwards on his lack of experience, and his campaign trail disagreements with Kerry, which is would you expect the Vice President to do. And he didn't sound nearly as mean-spirited doing it as one might have expected. Cheney is blessed with a soothing voice of a granfatherly sage, no matter what he happens to be saying. The Republicans played the low expectations game well here, taking advantage of the momentum Kerry had built up in his debate with Bush by talking up Edwards' supposed goal of a "Few Good Men"-type moment where the Vice President would blurt out an expletive or two. Cheney's goal here was not to get torn to shreds by Edwards, and he survived, in the process humanizing himself to a degree. He's a seasoned Washington professional, much more so than George W. Bush, so Edwards was unlikely to have delivered a death blow last night.

For Edwards, the evening was an opportunity to take more shots at the Bush/Cheney record. In 2000, Bush could credibly play the outsider looking to shake things up; that is no longer the case. The key was keep the incumbents on the defensive, since the more this campaign is about Bush/Cheney and their record over the last four years, the less the various machinations of the GOP noise machine will matter.

I don't think this event moved the ball much one way or another.


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