Second Thots

Sometimes one has to step back, take pause, and have some "second thots"

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


As in the first debate, if impressions are what counts, edge goes to Edwards

At the risk of being wrong again, which 'pundits' usually are with these things, I'm going to try and give my assessment of the Cheney-Edwards vice presidential debate which took place this evening. The viewing audience will be the final judge of it. All I can hope to do is to add my perspective into the mix.

First, there didn't seem to be any major gaffes or statements which could be used against either one of them for future reference. Researchers across America, including in both parties, are now hurrying to find the slightest misrepresentation or contradiction which might embarrass either one of the candidates. As far as I could tell, and I'm not an expert on the historical record, neither man said anything obviously false. We can only wait to see how that holds.

Similarly, there didn't appear to occur any major personal gaffe which would make people in the audience react with horror or outrage. No one gave a cool response to an emotional question about rape like Mike Dukakis did in 1988. No one set themselves up for a famous line like Dan Quayle did in that same year when his opponent, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, said, "I knew Jack Kennedy...You're no Jack Kennedy." The closest I thought anyone came to a gaffe in tonight's debate was when Dick Cheney chose not to use his thirty seconds of rebuttal in response to John Edwards on the issue of gay marriage. Cheney's decision to not say anything for those thirty seconds did come across as somewhat strange. A candidate with no response can come across as a candidate with something to hide. Given that his daughter is homosexual, he might have an excuse on this score. Other than that, both men managed to avoid a serious highlight moment.

Given that neither of them seemed to make that crucial mistake everyone can focus on, next to be taken into consideration is what they said and, maybe even more importantly, how they said it. We saw last week how John Kerry was able to draw the differences he wanted on Iraq and foreign policy while looking pretty good when he was saying it.

On policy, we got what was to be expected from both men tonight. Edwards started off by resorting to the 'Bush and Cheney misled us" line of attack. He did it right off the bat. But the debate ended up proceeding on a much more cordial footing as the night went on. Cheney kept hitting both Edwards and Kerry for flip-flopping on the war. Edwards kept hitting Cheney and Bush for associating Iraq and Saddam with the war on terror. Similar jabs were thrown on issues like jobs and health care.

If there was a general policy difference being presented by the candidates tonight, it was that Edwards was arguing for the need for a new direction for the country - a new foreign policy and a new domestic agenda involving hope for America. Cheney reinforced the need to stay the course, stay strong on the war on terror, and contrasted Bush's leadership qualities with those of John Kerry. Cheney also tried to bring in the records of his two opponents, which Edwards sidestepped with eye-popping stats like John Kerry having voted for tax cuts six-hundred times. I'll believe that one when I actually see it.

On this policy front, Edwards probably did a better job of portraying the other side more negatively than Cheney did. The impression one received by the arguments they were making was that life with Kerry-Edwards would be more positive than with Bush-Cheney. Whether it's enough to make a difference with voters remains to be seen. But it can't hurt a challenging team that always has the hurdle of looking like they're ready to take over the job of running the country. With the two debates so far, I think Kerry and Edwards have done that. By contrast, Bush and Cheney did not make a particularly strong case for why voting Bush out, and voting Kerry in, would be a terrible mistake for the country. Republicans certainly believe this. It's unclear if other Americans do as a result of the face-offs between the candidates so far.

Which leads to perhaps the most important aspect of these debates: the general impression the candidates make on the viewing audience. And, on this front, I would have to give Edwards the edge as well.

Cheney not only didn't want to use his allotted time on that one occasion, he appeared somewhat slouched, had his hands over his face at times, struggled a few times to come up with something to say, and failed to generate a confidence in himself and his administration which I'm sure his supporters would like to have seen. Edwards, on the other hand, was his smooth trial-lawyer self. He always had an answer, used his time wisely, had a good pace to his delivery, and made you believe that he believed everything he was saying about himself and his presidential candidate.

Which leads to a general trend I have noticed which might not bode well for the Bush/Cheney ticket. They don't come across as absolutely certain that they need to continue doing the work they've been doing over the past four years. Judging by the debates, and turning off what has believe has actually happened during that time, one would come away with the impression that things aren't going all that well at the present moment, and maybe Kerry and Edwards can do a better job.

Of course, it's far too early to tell how voters in general will react to the debate tonight. If I had to take a guess, people didn't come away from tonight thinking the Kerry and Edwards ticket would be a total disaster for the country. In fact, one could come away thinking things could be better.

If there is one factor which could explain the caution on the part of both Cheney and Bush in their debate performances, it might have something do with a general rule in politics that I have observed over the years. You can tell who is winning by the strategic decisions they make during the course of the campaign. And, even though the polls show a very close race again, the Bush team may have already concluded that they are in a far stronger position heading down the stretch than their opponents are. This might explain their failure, until now, to draw some of the distinctions struggling campaigns try to make to regain lost ground.

Otherwise, if there is a challenge for Bush/Cheney, it's their need to make clearer why it's so important they continue to lead their country. I don't think they have done a good enough job making this crucial argument in the two debates we have seen so far. It's Bush's turn next. We'll have to wait and see what he thinks of all of this. Kerry too. Should be fun.

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