Dick Cheney might have said to John Edwards, "I've met Dan Quayle, I know Dan Quayle, and Senator, you are no Dan Quayle." And he wasn't, either. Edwards, representing the Democratic ticket, did a pretty good, non-Quaylish job last night of facing up to Cheney in the only debate between vice presidential candidates of this election year.
Cheney did have a deft planned zinger up his sleeve, actually akin to Lloyd Bentsen's famous put-down of Bush I's running mate being "no Jack Kennedy." "Senator, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished," Cheney told Edwards, who looked almost as embarrassed as Quayle looked all those years ago. Cheney continued that Edwards had "one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate" and then delivered the coup de grace.
Citing his own service as president of the Senate, Cheney told Edwards, "The first time I ever met you was when you walked on this stage tonight." Now there was a zinger likely to stay zung. Edwards had no effective comeback.
Edwards, who at times resembles Cliff Robertson playing a candidate in an old Hollywood movie, managed to score verbal whacks of his own. Cheney looked uncomfortably vulnerable when Edwards brought up Halliburton, the scandal-ridden company of which Cheney once was CEO and which now holds a lucrative, exclusive contract for certain supplies to troops in Iraq.
Reeling off incriminating charges about Halliburton, Edwards looked pleased with himself -- something he does very, very often, come to think of it. Flustered, if only a little, Cheney complained that the charges would take more than the allotted 30 seconds to answer. Skillful moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS -- on her toes even while sitting down -- said firmly, "Well, that's all you've got." Cheney did not mount an eloquent defense, to put it mildly; he just resorted to legalese: "There's no substance to the charges."
Obviously a man of wit and intelligence, Cheney, like President Bush last week, maintained a kind of annoyed posture throughout the debate, as though all this were beneath him and the Bush-Cheney administration had nothing to answer for and no one to answer to. If he thought going in that he could flick Edwards off like a pesky fly, however, he was mistaken. Edwards was composed and clearly ready. He has bad habits, though -- including blankly repeating old charges against Bush and Cheney, rather than amplifying or elaborating on them, throwing the audience some new bones to chew on. But his technique has its head-banging effectiveness anyway.
Both candidates waltzed around the delicate and incendiary topic of same-sex marriages. Edwards made a point of noting that Cheney and his wife, Lynne, have a gay daughter while perhaps disingenuously praising his courage in being supportive of her -- and this was not long after Edwards sustained the attack on his Senate attendance record. Both candidates ended up pretty much agreeing that gays and lesbians deserve rights and respect, yet backed off supporting federal legislation guaranteeing them the right to marry.
Cheney did look embarrassed by his boss's proposal to amend the Constitution so as to make same-sex marriages impossible, but this sounds like one of those expedient election-year promises that will somehow fall by the wayside very quickly as a second Bush-Cheney term -- if any -- gets underway.
The debate was like a tea party for pit bulls. Cheney's snide remarks were generally more potent than anything Edwards could come up with, but Cheney has a way of emitting them without appearing vicious or reckless about it. He has that sly Bob Hope grinning sneer so well lampooned by Darrell Hammond on "Saturday Night Live."
Edwards did too much jotting and too much posing as the Dynamic Young Candidate, although at 51 he's not as young as he looks. He was so programmed that he didn't respond spontaneously enough to some of Cheney's charges; there was no passion in his umbrage. After Edwards pointed out the oft-quoted statistic that 90 percent of the coalition casualties in Iraq were U.S. troops -- this is supposedly a joint effort with other nations -- Cheney went into a modulated tantrum in which he claimed that Edwards had somehow just dismissed the contributions of Iraqis fighting with the United States in their own country.
This was clearly a rhetorical trick designed to obscure the point Edwards was making and to accuse him of demeaning the Iraqis at the same time. Cheney thus handed Edwards an opportunity for some good old theatrical high-dudgeon along the lines of "Senator, I deeply resent your complete misrepresentation of what I was saying." But Edwards ignored the accusation and went back to rehashing programmed campaign points.
The debate, televised live from Cleveland, was more spirited than Sen. John Kerry's trouncing of Bush last week, but the best debate may be the next one, a Bush-Kerry rematch Friday, since it will use a "town hall" format in which actual people, not just journalists, get to ask questions of the presidential contenders. Based on what happened last week, Bush must be getting awfully nervous as that night approaches, and Kerry's only big risk is letting himself be too cocky.
At any rate, it should be the best TV show of any of the debates so far.