In their 90-minute joint appearance Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed like the stern and somber headmaster who treated Sen. John Edwards as a recalcitrant student.
But perhaps the biggest contrast was not between Cheney and Edwards but between Cheney and President Bush in the president's debate performance last Thursday night.
Cheney was fluid, encyclopedic and almost eerily calm; Bush sometimes seemed overly reliant on the same few catch phrases and at certain points ill at ease, restless and annoyed.
Edwards reverted to his role as the energetic courtroom performer, jabbing at the older man and repeatedly accusing him of falsely telling the American people that Saddam Hussein was connected to the Sept. 11 attacks.
At the very outset, the North Carolina senator put the vice president on the defensive when he said Cheney and President Bush were trying to ignore the bad tidings of terrorism and chaos in parts of Iraq.
“Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. I mean, the reality you and George Bush continue to tell people, first, that things are going well in Iraq —the American people don’t need us to explain this to them, they see it on their television every single day,” Edwards told Cheney.
He later added a jibe at Cheney’s long record of experience in Washington, D.C.: “A long resume does not equal good judgment.”
But Cheney counter-attacked, aiming his barbs at Sen. John Kerry’s record of voting against the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and against weapons such as the B-1 bomber: “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,” he said.
In what was by far his most effective moment, Cheney invoked the name of former presidential hopeful Howard Dean, who was riding high among Democrats on a wave of anti-Iraq war sentiment in the fall of 2003.
First Edwards and Kerry voted in 2002 to authorize Bush to go to war against Saddam Hussein, and then they voted in October of 2003 against the $87 billion in supplemental funds to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan military operations.
“I couldn't figure out why that happened initially,” Cheney said disingenuously. “And then I looked and figured out that what was happening was Howard Dean was making major progress in the Democratic primaries, running away with the primaries based on an anti-war record. So they, in effect, decided they would cast an anti-war vote 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-Qaida?”
Bush supporter Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said in the post-debate “spin” room, “It was one of the defining moments in the debate. The issue to the America people is, ‘Who do you trust to lead America in difficult times?’ How are you going to build this broad international coalition if you’re going to blow in the political wind? That was one of the great moments in this debate and one that will be replayed many times.”
Coleman did give Edwards a pat on the back, “John Edwards is a very good personal injury attorney; I thought his closing was very good; I thought he was good when he did the personal experience, that is what he does best.”
In his closing statement, Edwards spoke of his father, a man without a college education, watching a math class on educational television early in the morning so he could qualify for a better job and earn more for his family.
“I have grown up in the bright light of America; but that light is flickering today,” Edwards said, in a reprise of his stump speech.
Cheney was in the reprimanding mode throughout much of the debate.
At one point, he gave Edwards a verbal smack by accusing him and Kerry of belittling the efforts of Iraqis who have enlisted to fight the old Saddam elements and terrorists.
Cheney lectured Edwards, “For you to demean their sacrifice strikes me as ..."
“Oh, I'm not,” Edwards quickly insisted. “I'm not demeaning.”
“It is indeed,” Cheney snapped.
When the very well-briefed Edwards tried to go on the offensive by saying Cheney, back in the 1970s and 1980s as a member of the House, voted against the Head Start program, the Martin Luther King federal holiday, and a ban on plastic guns that can escape detection in metal detectors, Cheney simply chose to not respond at all.
It got across two points: that Cheney’s record was quite conservative and that he didn’t feel a need to deny it. Rarely has a candidate appeared so oblivious to what viewers might think of him: Cheney spent part of the debate with his chin propped on his hands, his elbows resting on the desk in front of him.
In the post-debate “spin” room, Tad Devine, senior Kerry campaign strategist called Cheney’s performance “a little sour.” He “repeatedly avoided the reality of what’s happening in Iraq, which the vice president is still completely out of touch with. He had several opportunities to correct the record and he refused to do so. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that there is a mess in Iraq today. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact the United States had no plan when it entered this war to win the peace.”
And Cheney may have appeared to some viewers indifferent to harsh facts of daily life in America: When moderator Gwen Ifill asked about the high rate of AIDs among African-American women, Cheney said honestly but not very empathetically, “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women.”
Was the debate a turning point in the race? Probably not, but it was fascinating study in contrasting political personalities.