VICE PRESIDENTIAL debates are by definition something of a sideshow; they are primarily about two people who aren't even there. The vice presidential nominees' main task is to make the case for the guy at the top of the ticket; their own capabilities matter only secondarily, in showing that they'd be up to the job if necessary. And yet last night's bare-knuckled encounter between Vice President Cheney and Sen. John Edwards may have mattered more than most.
One reason is the role of this vice president, among the most influential, and polarizing, in history. Four years ago, many voters who preferred Al Gore to George W. Bush nonetheless considered Mr. Cheney's selection, as did we, a mark in Mr. Bush's favor; Mr. Cheney had experience, in the federal government and particularly in foreign policy, that was lacking in Mr. Bush's resume. Mr. Cheney turned out to be a far different vice president than many expected -- more ideological and more partisan. He said last night that the continuation of partisan bickering was "one of the disappointments of the last four years" -- as if the administration, and Mr. Cheney himself, had not contributed in any way to the worsening atmosphere.
Last night Mr. Edwards persisted in some lines of criticism that we consider to be unsupported demagoguery, in particular hints of misconduct swirling around Mr. Cheney and Halliburton Co. But the Democrat was more effective, and more on point, in challenging Mr. Cheney on rationales for the Iraq war that have proven false, in particular connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and for the vice president's continuing failure to acknowledge the difficulties of the Iraq mission. "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people," were Mr. Edwards's first words to Mr. Cheney last night.
Mr. Cheney parried by attacking, with justification, inconsistencies in the Kerry-Edwards position on Iraq shaped more by politics than conviction. He also sharply accused Mr. Edwards of unfairly and mistakenly denigrating allied and Iraqi contributions to the war effort. Mr. Cheney was unpersuasive when he contended that the current coalition is as robust as the one he helped assemble for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But he was right to chide the Kerry-Edwards team for appearing insufficiently appreciative of the allies and Iraqis who have fought alongside U.S. troops.
If this debate mattered in part because Mr. Cheney has been such an integral part of the Bush team, it was also important as a proving ground for his relatively inexperienced opponent. Mr. Edwards has served not quite one term in the Senate, and he has spent much of that time running for higher office. Mr. Cheney was as cutting as a school principal lecturing a delinquent student on the subject of Mr. Edwards's Senate "attendance record." But if the question was whether he has the grounding to assume the presidency if need be, Mr. Edwards delivered a solid performance on both foreign and domestic policy last night. He sought to turn the experience question around by saying, "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this kind of experience."
Debates are partly about momentum, and if Democratic nominee John F. Kerry was on the upswing after last week's debate, nothing that happened last night is likely to stop that. If they are also partly about highlighting differences, this debate would have to be judged a success: In style and substance, the vice presidential candidates were about as distinct as two contenders could be.