As I did last week, I flipped off the volume on the television after the debate ended so that I could put down some unmediated impressions before hearing the spin and CW in the process of formation.
I hesitate to say this. But my basic impression was that Edwards didn't strike a false note for the entire 90 minutes. And I say this having been critical of him in the past.
After I saw him at a Town Hall meeting in late January in New Hampshire, I described how I was wowed by him during the event itself but then found myself not long after feeling the whole thing was somehow light and insubstantial.
Going into this debate I worried that I might see the same things. Specifically, I was concerned that everything else notwithstanding, Cheney might just outclass him on at least the perception of heft and seriousness.
But I didn't see that. Not at all. And the sharp on his feet quality I ascribed to Cheney late this afternoon didn't seem particularly evident.
Let me review some running impressions of the debate itself.
I thought Cheney started very weak and that Edwards started just as strong. Cheney recovered after not too long; but Edwards remained clean and on-message.
One thing I also noticed is that Cheney didn't look very good or even very healthy. Something like that can simply be a matter of bad make-up or unflattering lighting. So I'm not making any assumptions about Cheney's health based on what I saw. But the physical contrast between the two men was unmistakable from the outset.
Another point that I believe will ripple over the next few days is that Vice President Cheney told a number of just straight-up falsehoods during the foreign policy portion of the debate. And that creates lots of grist for Democrats in the on-going debate spin war.
I didn't take close notes and I don't have a transcript available. But there was the time when the VP said he'd never suggested Saddam was connected to 9/11 -- which will come back to haunt him. And there were a number of other Iraq, WMD and 9/11-whoppers.
Then there was the time when he said that a major reason for the decline of suicide bombings in Israel is that Saddam is no longer paying those $25,000 bounties to the families of the bombers.
That's got to be one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. No one believes that. And I'm sure he'll be ridiculed endlessly for saying it.
There were other moments when he tried out really silly number and word games. In response to Edwards' claim that the US has sustained 90% of the coalition fatalities in Iraq, for instance, Cheney insisted that Edwards wasn't telling the truth because he wasn't including all the Iraqi soldiers and police officers who are of course now dying in their hundreds. So Cheney said the number is only 50%.
If you want to change the definition of 'the coalition' that everyone has used for the last two years I guess this may be technically true. But it struck me as silly and drove home the President's and the Vice President's unwillingness to look reality in the face and level with the public.
The essential truth is that for whatever reasons we don't have many allies with us in Iraq and the overwhelming number of casualties are Americans. Word games don't change that.
Two other final points on Cheney.
Despite what we saw last week, and the lesson the debate prep folks must have taken from it, I thought that about a third of the way through the debate Edwards started to get under Cheney's skin. The VP seemed mad. And not in a flattering way.
The basic reason, I think, was the same as in President Bush's case. He didn't like hearing the fusillade of criticism about Iraq and the war on terror. There were no grimaces and rolling eyes like in the president's case. But something about him turned sour and snide. And, again, not in a way that helped him land any punches on Edwards or Kerry.
The final point is that in the final half hour or so of the encounter Cheney seemed to grow somehow philosophical in his responses. And I don't mean that in an altogether uncomplimentary way. I thought that was the case in his answer about dividing the country and in a couple other answers that I'm not remembering at the moment. He seemed to be honestly airing the question and thinking them over, tossing out this idea or that, but not with any particular energy or verve.
The problem was that had I been one of the Bush Cheney strategists I would be thinking, "How does this answer hurt John Kerry or help the president? What is Cheney talking about?" He seemed just disengaged somehow.
I don't usually think much of the sort of comment that I'm about to make. But there was a moment during this 'philosophical' phase of Cheney's performance when I couldn't help but think: 'I just don't know if this guy's heart is really in it. I'm not sure they really want to win.' He was listless. It was like Cheney checked out of the debate about a half hour before Edwards did.
So that's Cheney. Now to Edwards.
As I said at the outset, I thought Edwards struck pretty much every note right. I'm not saying he was the best debater ever or that it was a bravura performance. But every answer seemed well-crafted and on point. He went right to Cheney's and Bush's weakest points on the issues of credibility and honesty about the war.
He also did the one thing that was most important for him to do in this whole exercise: he shored up his boss on the issues of vulnerability left open from the last debate, the ones the Bush-Cheney team has been hitting on ever since. Again and again, he pressed the point about Kerry's strength and resolution and sought to disentangle whatever messiness was left over from the 'global test' issue.
He followed the one dictate that was absolutely key for him: he was there to defend John Kerry. It wasn't about him. It was about his boss.
On foreign policy I thought he more than held his own with the VP. He made sharp and focused attacks and never got caught flat-footed by a man who has literally decades more foreign policy experience than he does. On domestic policy he was solid; and that provided a telling contrast to Cheney who seemed bored or lost on the issue.
Those again are my initial thoughts. Certainly we'll be returning to this topic over the next couple days. On balance I think Edwards held the momentum Kerry created last week and advanced the arguments of competence and honesty that worked against the president. Equally important, I thought Cheney's efforts to land punches against Kerry were only marginally effective at best. A friend who called me while I was writing this told me that he thought Cheney scored points attacking Kerry's foreign policy record reaching back to the 1970s. But I didn't think Cheney knocked those issues that effectively or with enough consistency.
The task for Democrats over the next forty-eight hours is to bang home with hammering detail and repetition just how many things Vice President Cheney said during the debate that were just flat-out false and to make the case that this is part and parcel of a general pattern of denial about what's happening in Iraq and failure, on so many fronts, to level with the American public.
I think the Kerry folks are pretty happy with what they saw; I doubt the Bush-Cheney folks are feeling the same way.