October 06, 2004

Up for Debate

Today's Musical Selection: "You Talk Too Much" by Joe Jones

Hello, everybody! Well, yesterday I subjected myself to the vice-presidential debate. I did this in despite of my long-held position that debates are the Kabuki theater of politics, and like NASCAR races are only interesting if something goes wrong.

So why did I tune in? Two reasons: First, I haven't seen much of John "Mister Blue Sky" Edwards lately, and I wanted to see how he was doing. Second, I remember the cool, polite, competent Dick Cheney of the 2000 debate and I wanted to see if he was still holding up after four years of pulling strings from his undiclosed location. So I dug in for 90 minutes (actually, more than 90, since it ran long) of scripted quips and coached expressions. Lucky me.

And in the end, I saw nothing particularly startling on either side. In the end, left-leaning folks (like Slate's Will Saletan) thought Edwards won, and right-leaning folks (like my man Frinklin) thought Cheney won. This is usually a sign that the debate was a tie, and indeed that's the way I saw it. What I found interesting (to the degree that anything was interesting) was the degree to which each man seemed to be on an island. They had different approaches, different sets of facts, and were appealing to different audiences. Cheney at times seemed to be pretending that Edwards wasn't even on the stage with him. That bizarre disconnected quality was part of what made the debate, especially in its later stages, so dull. But I'm sure you want to hear the pluses and minuses, and far be it from me to deny you that. Here we go:

Dick Cheney

Pluses: He didn't blow his stack, and he maintained a mien of firm control throughout the debate. He radiated confidence, especially in the first half, and came off as a man who knew what he was talking about. (Confidence, however, doesn't always mean correctness, and the truth-squadders had a field day.) In the first half of the debate, Cheney did a good job zinging Edwards when provided openings (the best example came when he accused Edwards of demeaning the sacrifices of Iraqis fighting for the coalition). He articulated well the theme that the Bush-Cheney team was steady, reliable and experienced, while the Kerry-Edwards team was unsure and inexperienced. Big points for staying on message.

Minuses: He was a lot less genial this time around than in 2000, and his cheerless demeanor surely didn't win too many people over. When he tried for personal warmth, relaying the anecdote of the airplane builder in Minnesota, he became bogged down in figures and economic concerns, a gaffe out of the Bob Dole playbook. In the second half, especially after the gay-marriage question, he became oddly passive, declining several opportunities to go after Edwards or even respond to Edwards' charges. He had an annoying habit of ignoring questions he didn't want to answer, tending instead to fall back on his theme of security and experience, whether that had anything to do with the question or not. At times, Cheney seemed dismissive of Edwards, as if the senator had no right to be on the same stage as the vice president. (Giving Edwards the "talk to the hand" signal when Edwards protested the zinger about the fallen Iraqis was probably the worst offense here.) And that zinger about never having met Edwards before was terrific... except that it wasn't true. The Kerry campaign had a photo of Cheney and Edwards together at a prayer breakfast circulating before the night was out. The line was obviously scripted; did Cheney forget that he'd met Edwards before, or did he just not care?

Overall Grade: B+

John Edwards

Pluses: He did a good job combining his natural charm with a solid attack on the Bush-Cheney record. He definitely appeared ready for prime time, refusing to wither or stumble in the face of Cheney's frontal assaults on his record. And Edwards did not shy away from jabbing at Cheney, the way he backed off from going after Kerry throughout most of the primaries. And refreshingly for a man with undisguised presidential aspirations, he kept the focus of his remarks on Kerry and not on himself. (By contrast, did Cheney mention Bush by name at all? I don't recall it, though I'm sure he did once or twice.) Edwards is a good second fiddle, sunny and supportive while still displaying some fortitude. I liked the way he lightly jabbed Cheney for evading the questions he didn't want to answer. He was very courteous to Gwen Ifill, while Cheney tended not to mention her. And I liked his story at the end about his father learning math on the TV.

Minuses: He did stumble a few times, the kind of quick misstatements that aren't uncommon in normal speech, but they made Edwards look less prepared than Cheney, who didn't make such slips. He had an annoying habit of circling back to answer accusations made by Cheney in previous questions, leaving himself little time to answer the question at hand. Cheney's answer to the gay-marriage question, indicating a gap between administration policy and his personal views, offered Edwards a golden opportunity to skewer the vice president, but he passed on it because he's so squeamish of appearing pro-gay-marriage. His own answer wound up being as tortured as Cheney's. Also, when Edwards blatantly makes love to the camera, as he did during his closing statement, I want to vomit.

Overall Grade: B+

Gwen Ifill

(Yeah, I'm rating the moderator too.)

Pluses: She didn't shy away from asking tough, probing questions of both Cheney and Edwards. I particularly liked her question to Edwards about whether Saddam Hussein would still be in power under a Kerry administration and her question to Cheney about the links between 9/11 and Hussein. In general, her foreign policy questions were strong. By asking such pointed question, she set the stage for a lively debate in the first half.

Minuses: Her performance petered out in the second half. Her domestic policy questions were as weak as her foreign-policy questions were strong. The question in which she commanded both candidates not to mention their running mates, though well-intentioned, was stupid. (And Edwards highlighted the silliness of the "rule" by violating it twice.) Her question about the spread of AIDS among African-American women was an odd one, particularly as it was the only health-related question she asked. (Edwards was practically begging for a real health-care-policy question by the end.) Her aside about neither candidate answering the Israel question was inappropriate (and inaccurate, as Edwards pointed out, since he did answer it). Worst of all, she failed at the most basic fuction of a moderator, which is to keep the debate running smoothly and in an orderly. She forgot whose turn it was to answer questions. She awarded Edwards an extra 30-second rebuttal to which he wasn't entitled. She didn't cut off either candidate when they ran long, as both did a couple times. And as a result, the debate ran about 10 minutes long, which undoubtedly contributed to the sense that the debate was dragging. The moderator has to keep control of the debate and make everything run on time, and Ifill failed at that. Like umpiring, the traffic-control function of the moderator is only noticeable when it's not there, and it wasn't there last night. I understand this was Ifill's first try at moderating, and her inexperience showed.

Overall Grade: C+

Hopefully the next debate, on Friday in St. Louis, will be more intriguing than this one.

I want to take a moment to introduce you to the newest link on my blogroll, BallWonk. BallWonk is a new Washington baseball blog, a category whose ranks can be expected to swell in the coming months. It's definitely worth a look, as it's a very well-constructed site.

And that's all for me today. More tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at October 6, 2004 08:45 PM

Natural Charm? Good God, am I that much more of a Republican than I think I am? I can't STAND John Edwards, if anything I find even more unlikable than I do John Kerry. And I can't stand John Kerry. Every time I see him, Edwards is smarmier and more condescending than the last. He's a (barely) grown-up Eddie Haskell. C'mon, it doesn't take much imagination to see Eddie up there, now does it?

"That's a very pretty dress you're wearing, Mrs. Voter. There's Two Americas, did you know that?"


Posted by: frinklin at October 6, 2004 08:56 PM

I was surprised, actually... I'd previously found myself resistant to Edwards' "natural charm," but I thought he came off well last night. Cheney, on the other hand, seemed grim and grumpy. I liked the Cheney I saw in the 2000 debate, but the '04 edition I found off-putting. Different strokes, I guess.

Edwards definitely has his Eddie Haskell-ish moments, but I didn't think last night was an example.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at October 6, 2004 10:11 PM
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