. . . Tuesday October 5, 2004

Hello Cleveland

The Veep candidates wasted no time in Cleveland and came out swinging, although the energy seemed to be sapped from all parties in the latter half of the debate. And let me be frank. Energy sapped from the room favors Dick Cheney.

In the first half of the debate, along with a lot of substance (that’s two debates in a row) we saw an amazing turn of strategic events. As I suggested, John Edwards hit the Vice President for the distortions on Iraq and the constant rewriting of Kerry’s record and comments.

As predicted, Cheney dropped the “global test” bomb early:

“We heard Senator Kerry say the other night that there ought to be some kind of global test before U.S. troops are deployed preemptively to protect the United States.”

Edwards responded (although I think he could have done so more strongly):

“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.”

What was surprising about the first half of the debate is that it was Cheney, amazingly, who repeatedly tried to tag Kerry/Edwards with distortions. One example:

“Well, the reason they keep mentioning Halliburton is because they’re trying to throw up a smokescreen. They know the charges are false.”

Later he described a Kerry/Edwards smokescreen. Overall, I’d say Edwards was not prepared to hit hard enough on the global test related issues and that let Cheney frame the question of who’s doing the distorting (not always, but a draw on this issue is not good enough).

Edwards did explain that: “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.” But I would’ve liked to see Edwards follow up with other examples and lay the groundwork for establishing the pattern of the GOP’s behavior in this campaign.

At one point Cheney complained that “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.”

Edwards should have shot back. This is an executive team that loves to talk tough while sending others into danger (Kerry used this line during the primaries: “George Bush speaks of strength.”). John Kerry is the only one of the bunch to back up talk with actions. Where was the indignation?

With enough gravitas, anything can sound true.

In terms of performance, I though Cheney was as good as Edwards in the first half of the debate. A lot will depend on how some of the substance of Cheney’s comments plays in living rooms. Some of his suggestions were really fairly ridiculous. Here’s the best example:

“You made the comment that the Gulf War coalition in ’91 was far stronger than this. No. We had 34 countries then; we’ve got 30 today. We’ve got troops beside us. It’s hard, after John Kerry referred to our allies as a coalition of the coerced and the bribed, to go out and persuade people to send troops and to participate in this process.”

In this brief moment, Cheney made two truly outlandish assertions. One, the coalition today is as strong as the one built during Gulf War I. It will take a lot more mentions of Poland to make anyone believe that. Two, the reason that it was so hard to build a bigger coalition was because of John Kerry’s comments.

This is like a 527 ad gone crazy in the real time. But it would have helped the viewers to pick up on this madness if Edwards had pointed it out and done so strongly. This would’ve been a good time to repeat the line, “You’re still not being straight with the American people.” Or maybe altering it to, “You’re talking like a nutcase.”

Where was the mill?

The second half of the debate was much more tame. I think my perception of John Edwards as great stump speaker and not as great a debater was seen here. It’s not that he lost this section of the debate. But he should have (given the track record of the administration) won big. Where was the mill? Where was the connection with the working man? This was Edward’s moment to feel our pain and I think he largely missed the opportunity. Too much policy, too little connecting, no two Americas. Again, he was pretty good. But I expected a lot more.

A few other takes from the debate:

- Cheney hit Kerry and Edwards hard and even went after his opponent on the attendance record. I’ll be interested to see how that tone played. I thought it was unnecessary and came off as overly mean-spirited.

- What liberal press? Gwen Ifill was much harder on John Edwards. Much harder — Including a question to the younger man that ended with: “Isn’t that a little naive?” Where was the question to the Veep that asked: “Wasn’t that pretty much an outright lie?”

- The Veep’s assertion that Edwards was demeaning the sacrifices of Iraqis seemed like a cheapshot. I’m guessing it will come off like one. But why would Edwards shoot back with: “The Iraqis would be sacrificing a whole lot less if your administration had a plan to secure the country.” That could have turned the debate.

- The ghost of Howard Dean. How will it play? On one hand, it was a good line and made Kerry sound politically driven. On the other hand, it reminds voters that Howard Dean was right. And any way you cut it, that makes W and Cheney wrong.

- Edwards seemed to delink Iraq and the war on terror fairly effectively. So far, Bush-Cheney are 0 for 2 on that topic. And it’s a big topic.

- Early on, very early, Cheney stated: “I have not suggested there is a connection between Iraq and 9-11.” Man, we’ve been waiting a long time for that statement. I wonder if it will move the millions of Americans who still (for some strange reason, hmmm) think such a connection exists. If I ran a 527, that comment by the Veep would be the punchline of a week’s worth of ads. If America believes what Cheney said, Kerry wins.

- The base of the Democratic party should be furious at the way the gay marriage debate played out. I wish we just had candidates who said, yeah, come on, they can get married if they want. Edwards could then have said, even though your party will not fight for your daughter, we will. But we won’t. And that’s pathetic.

- One out of two kids in Cleveland is living in poverty? Anyone else depressed about that?

- A couple of times Cheney didn’t even bother giving a response. Oddly, I thought that worked.

- Where was the stem cell debate?

- Think of all the missing issues. And the untouchable ones such as guns. There was no hint of the massive cultural war going on in this country. And the absence of that dicourse is a victory for the wrong side.

Overall, it was a good debate. Who won? Will there be a bounce? I have to admit that I’m not sure on this one. Cheney used his scare tactics and offered far out theories in some moments. But I don’t think Edwards capitalized on these to the extent he could have.

Cheney was as scary as expected. Edwards was not quite as charming as expected.

Again, I am following my own debate-watching advice by posting these comments before watching any pundits or visiting any sites. My gut tells me that this was a draw. But my brain tells me that Cheney (even though he was wrong on the issues) was pretty effective at easing the bad memory of a petulant President from last week’s debate.

I’m not sure the polls will move, although I feel fairly certain this night will not add to the Kerry/Edwards momentum (or shift it in the other direction). I also feel certain that Cheney did not blow Edwards off the stage in terms of his gravitas, experience, etc.

That makes the stakes for the next Presidential debate even higher.

Concentration is important!