Vice presidential picks haven’t mattered in the past. And vice presidential debates haven’t mattered. Neither will this one. Dick Cheney and John Edwards each argued the case well for their man, probably better than George W. Bush and John Kerry did for themselves five nights earlier. They scored points and blocked attacks, reinforcing each campaign’s major talking points of the moment. For Cheney it was, Kerry is weak on national security and too inconsistent to be an effective commander-in-chief at a time of war. For Edwards, it was, Bush and Cheney have not told Americans the truth about the war in Iraq and the ongoing mess there, and we have a plan to do better in Iraq and at home. But neither succeeded in their attempts to knock the other out of the ring. Edwards went after Halliburton, but Cheney was hardly defensive about his old company. And he did not come across as a dark, behind-the-scenes force. Cheney accused Edwards of amassing a do-nothing record in the Senate, yet Edwards demonstrated he was as well-versed on the issues as Cheney and denied Republicans the chance to shout about a stature gap between the two.
Did I already say this debate won’t matter? Voters don’t think about vice presidential candidates on Election Day. (Didn’t Dan Quayle prove that?) This 90-minute session at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland was political sport–an exhibition game that only would have an impact if a player suffered a major injury. And there were none. But the debate did show that neither campaign is departing from its established gameplan. Cheney emphasized national security, suggesting that only Bush can keep the nation safe. Edwards attacked the Bush-Cheney record in Iraq, but he also expanded the critique to encompass domestic matters, slamming Bush and Cheney for cutting taxes for the wealthy and for doing nothing to provide health care coverage to the uninsured. It was a sign the Kerry campaign, after Kerry’s successful outing in the foreign policy debate last week, wants to land some blows on Bush regarding kitchen-table issues.
Let’s go to the (irrelevant) highlights.
* The first question of the night–which moderator Gwen Ifill partially flubbed–concerned Iraq and the alleged connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Cheney once again claimed that Hussein had “an established relationship” with al Qaeda. But the day before the debate, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had said he had not seen “hard evidence” of any operational alliance. And, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the 9/11 commission, and the CIA had also concluded there was no working relationship. Yet Cheney cannot drop this bone. He noted, “The effort that we’ve mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.” But there were no WMDs in Iraq, and no al Qaeda terrorists–at least before the invasion. Al Qaeda at that point was more likely to obtain loose nukes originating in the former Soviet Union or WMD assistance from sympathizers in the Pakistan military.