The Man Who Wasn't There

The specter that Dick Cheney wants stalking the consciousness of Americans as
they go to vote is the threat of a nuclear or chemical weapon being smuggled
into the center of an American city. He called up that image twice last night,
and he surely wants Americans to believe that if terrorists are about to set
off the big one, he will throw himself upon it and, with his imposing bulk, his
dubious numbers, his concocted realities, and the sheer weight of his alarmism,
do a far better job of absorbing the blast than the lightweight John Edwards
ever could.

Or, for that matter, than George W. Bush ever could. The president was
the man who wasn't there in last night's debate. Cheney attacked John Kerry. Edwards
defended Kerry. Edwards attacked the administration, and Cheney defended it,
but the president himself -- that floundering, surly nincompoop whom we saw last
week -- barely came up. It wouldn't have done the Bush-Cheney ticket any good to remind people of Bush himself, and the veep clearly took pains to avoid the topic as
much as possible.

The 2004 vice-presidential debate may be much noted right now, but will
not be long remembered. Two more presidential debates are waiting in the wings,
along with more chaos in Iraq and the last pre-election report on the state of
economy (the unemployment numbers), which will come out Friday. Both Cheney and
Edwards handled themselves creditably and said things most pleasing to their
respective bases -- Cheney on the war on terror, Edwards on the war in Iraq and
the state of the economy. But Cheney, more at ease in the format and perfectly
at ease reciting fictitious facts as though they were geometrically proven and
adhered to by all, did a better of job arguing his case than Edwards did his.

Edwards was a pit bull in the debate's first half, on Iraq and the war
on terror. The second half, though, on domestic affairs, should have been his
opportunity to ratchet up his attacks. Instead, after praising Dick and Lynne
Cheney for not burning their lesbian daughter at the stake, he seemed
distracted as the talk turned to what should have been his strength. The Office
of Management and Budget has said, as Edwards pointed out, that litigation is
responsible for roughly one percent of the inflation in medical care, but
Edwards spent nearly all his time defending himself and Kerry on medical
lawsuits, failing until the end of the evening to turn the discussion to Bush's
siding with the drug companies -- who are responsible for a damned sight more
than one percent of medical inflation -- over the American people. And the two
Americas that Edwards evokes so effectively on the stump, the plight of
families whose incomes have fallen as their expenses have risen, hardly made it
into the discussion at all.

The slackening intensity of Edward's second-half offense also enabled
Cheney to bluff merrily on the theme of how much he and Bush really want
to bring the country together. Edwards noted tartly that the country is more
divided now than it has been in many decades; he asserted but did not detail
how this was the result of the consistently hyper-partisan choices the
administration had made. (If Cheney had truly never met Edwards, that would have been because Cheney only goes to the Capitol to lunch with the Republican caucus on
Tuesdays.)

Some of Edwards' message was directed at minority voters, and it hit
with an impact. He reeled off a litany of votes that Cheney cast while in the
House -- against Head Start, Meals on Wheels, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday,
releasing Nelson Mandela from prison -- and this did the Republicans no good in
their efforts to suppress the black vote. Both Edwards and Cheney pandered
shamelessly to Jewish voters; had the debate run two hours, one or both might
actually have converted or at least persuaded Gwen Ifill to keep kosher.

In the end, inevitably, Edwards touched some populist chords, which will
help the ticket a bit, I think, in places like Ohio. For his part, defending
utterly failed policies, Cheney nonetheless seemed a steady hand. If father
figures make you feel secure, he's your man -- even if, in this case, everything
that father knows is wrong.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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