IF IT'S POSSIBLE for a vice presidential debate to matter, last night's duel between Dick Cheney and John Edwards did. Why? Because Vice President Cheney did two things that might help President Bush. He attacked Bush's presidential opponent John Kerry effectively on the war on terrorism and Iraq--something Bush failed to do in his first debate with Kerry. And Cheney put Kerry's dovish record on national security over two decades as a senator firmly on the table as a campaign issue. Edwards's effort to thwart Cheney was unavailing.
Now it's up to Bush to follow through in his national security speech today and his second debate with Kerry in St. Louis on Friday. He'd better be ready this time. Last week, he wasn't, and he knows it. Bush was dissatisfied with his performance and with those who prepared him. A Bush aide likened the coaching of Bush with the arduous preparation of President Reagan in 1984 for his disastrous first debate with Walter Mondale. At the time, Reagan's vice president, the elder George Bush, didn't help much in his debate with Geraldine Ferraro. But this time, for Bush junior, help was on the way.
The Cheney-Edwards debate was 90 minutes, but only the first half was significant. That's when national security, terrorism, and Iraq were discussed and when Cheney rushed to Bush's rescue. Cheney knew more and explained things better than Edwards did. He pointed out that Kerry's strong words now about fighting terrorism were undercut by his weak national security record. Edwards tried, but not very hard, to defend Kerry. When Cheney attacked Kerry's idea of a "global test" which should be passed before pre-emptive military action is taken against an enemy, Edwards's response was half-hearted, meandering, and unpersuasive. On national security, to put it simply, Cheney was strong, Edwards was weak. And to the extent that mattered in the presidential race, it aided Bush.
Cheney had the trenchant sound bites. "You cannot use tough talk during the course of a 90-minute debate in a presidential campaign to obscure a 30-year record in the United States Senate," Cheney said. "I'm saying specifically that I don't believe [Kerry] has the qualities we need in a commander in chief because I don't think, based on his record, that he would pursue the kind of aggressive policies that need to be pursued if we're going to defeat these terrorists."
The vice president didn't let up. He said Kerry "doesn't display the qualities of somebody who had conviction." Both Kerry and Edwards "voted to commit the troops" in Iraq, then voted against the funding to supply and arm them, Cheney said. "I couldn't figure out why that happened initially. And then I looked and figured out that . . . Howard Dean was making major progress in the Democratic primaries . . . based on his antiwar record. So they, in effect, decided they would cast an antiwar vote and they voted against the troops."
Then came the killer quote from Cheney: "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?" Edwards's response was lame, and he never regained his footing so long as national security was being discussed. Cheney looked like he concluded that Edwards could do neither him nor Bush any real harm.
He didn't smirk, but he didn't look worried either. In the debate in 1992 between Vice President Dan Quayle and Al Gore, it was Gore who failed to defend his presidential running mate, Bill Clinton. He didn't try, and both Clinton and his wife Hillary were furious. Edwards tried, but couldn't pull it off. He quickly ran out of talking points and began repeating himself.
On domestic issues, Edwards shined, but it was too late and the issues were too diffuse. For his part, Cheney seemed bored by domestic concerns and didn't engage Edwards strenuously. He acted a bit like Bush did during his encounter with Kerry last week--uninterested and unable to fake any amount of passion. But he'd already done what he could to help with the paramount issue of the campaign: national security. Nothing more could have been expected.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.