It wasn't the kind of line Sen. Lloyd Bentsen used on Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate, but it was close. In Tuesday night's debate, Vice President Dick Cheney seriously damaged Sen. John Edwards' moral claim on issues - from the war in Iraq, to health care - when he observed that Edwards' record in the Senate was "not very distinguished." Cheney said Edwards had "missed 33 out of 36 meetings in the Judiciary Committee, almost 70 percent of the meetings of the Intelligence Committee. You've missed a lot of key votes on tax policy, on energy, on Medicare reform. Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you 'Senator Gone.' You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate."
And then there was this devastating line from the Vice President: "In my capacity as Vice President, I am the president of the Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight." (Cheney referred to having never met Edwards on Capitol Hill.)
This is the way real debaters deconstruct the credibility of their opponents. The Vice President also injected a subject that was missing from the first presidential debate: the Senate record of Kerry and Edwards. Cheney said to Edwards, "Your rhetoric, senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. There isn't." That's the way debates are won and Cheney won this one. Big time.
Edwards kept repeating that he and Sen. Kerry have "credibility" and claimed they can deal with the Iraq war and build coalitions better than Bush and Cheney. The Vice President undermined that argument by noting how many sides the Democratic nominees have taken. And he accused Kerry and Edwards of the crassest political opportunism when he noted that during the primaries Kerry and Edwards were on record as supporting the Iraq war, but suddenly reversed course and began criticizing the war.
"I couldn't figure out why that happened initially," Cheney said. "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 antiwar 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-Qaeda?"
Cheney repeatedly noted Kerry's seemingly pragmatic approach to issues and said that "if you look at his record he doesn't display the qualities of somebody who has conviction."
On domestic issues, Cheney was weakest on the question of poverty and same-sex marriage. He said jobs were the main answer to poverty. In reality, it is stable two-parent homes with a mother and father that constitute the best anti-poverty program. Though Cheney says he supports the president's policy in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex "marriage," he repeated his contention that people should be allowed to live as they wish. That's a formula for social and cultural chaos and the Vice President allowed his personal situation with a lesbian daughter to dictate his judgment for the entire country. For his part, Edwards was on shaky ground when he claimed that no state has ever been forced to accept a marriage from another state. But with the courts dictating policy and overriding the will of voters and their elected representatives, the goal of gay rights advocates is to impose same-sex "marriage" on every state, regardless of what those states want.
The key to any debate is not to play too much defense, but to stay on offense. This, both Cheney and Edwards did. The Vice President did it far more effectively and his experience as a debater and a seasoned leader in government came through in contrast to Edwards' youth and inexperience. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked both men what qualifications they had to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Cheney spoke of serving four presidents and long years in government. Edwards spoke about traveling around the world and meeting leaders. It was no contest.
President Bush could and should learn from his Vice President's performance. This isn't beanbag and there will be no excuse if Bush doesn't engage and disarm John Kerry in their second debate Friday night.