ANNANDALE, Va. — It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Dick Cheney had led off, responding to a loaded question about Iraq and the war on terror in a pointed, formidable manner, displaying such full command of detail and complexity that it would have been unbecoming to add anything negative about his opponent or John Kerry. So could John Edwards reply in kind? Yeah, right. Like the little man he is destined to remain, he immediately launched into a cheap attack on Cheney and “George Bush” for “still not being straight with the American people.” He repeated Kerry soundbites about mounting casualties (in a war Kerry-Edward are promising to continue regardless), praised three Republican critics of the Iraq policy (Sen. Lugar is now on the spot), and promised John Kerry’s “credibility” would make all the difference.
The pattern was set. Cheney spoke all evening with heft. Edwards could never summon anything more than an ambulance chaser’s empty and tone-deaf talk. True to form, by evening’s end he was even denouncing frivolous lawyering. Not his finest hour and a half, but it will suffice as his last hurrah.
Cheney remains the administration’s MVP. Let’s be honest. It would make much more sense if he were to represent it in the next two debates as well. Late in the evening, while most of American was watching baseball, he spoke about being a “member of the team.” He was being modest. If George W. Bush is the Derek Jeter of the franchise, Cheney is Joe Torre. Okay, sometimes he doubles as Mariano Rivera. Either way, he’s indispensable.
Last night he kept his club on course. For all intents the game was over when he remarked, “Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. There isn’t.” Later, in finest Major League fashion, he flattened Edwards with a knock-down pitch, capturing the essential Edwards by noting that as president of the Senate he had never met him. Edwards may be a hot dog, but to be a player you have to show up at the ballpark. Give the guy his unconditional release. (To those who insist Cheney had met Edwards before, one question: Why didn’t Edwards remind him instead of lamely attacking Cheney’s ancient record as a congressman? Didn’t he like Jimmy Carter promise always to tell the truth?)
Cheney’s managerial savvy came through over and over. Gwen Ifill, who unlike her colleague Jim Lehrer seemed at times to pursue her own agenda, asked Cheney about his “family’s experience” apropos the vice president’s view of gay marriage and a constitutional amendment that would outlaw it. Cheney’s response was deft, whereupon the smarmy Edwards jumped in, heeping praise on the Cheneys for loving “their daughter.” You’d never have known from his reaction that the Cheneys have two daughters, yet on and on he went about the only daughter who remains politically useful — not that Kerry-Edwards would permit her to marry another woman, mind you. After Edwards yapped himself into oblivion on the subject, it was Cheney’s turn to have the final 30 seconds. Instead he passed, other that briefly thanking “the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter,” and adding “I appreciate that very much.”
“That’s it?” Ifill inquired, incredulously?
“That’s it,” Cheney responded, sincerely.
You take your dignity where you can find it.
Later Ifill started up again by asking Cheney specifically about AIDS among American black women between the ages of 25 and 44. It was the closest thing to a trick question all night. But Cheney kept his composure and even acknowledged that he’d not known about that particular aspect of the AIDS tragedy, not the sort of concession a less confident politician would make. Of course, he added, more needs to be done. Absolutely, Edwards agreed, as he began to riff about AIDS in Africa, which saw him end on a lament about the number of children in American without health insurance and call for “kids and adults” to have access to “preventative care,” whatever that might mean.
Late in the evening Ifill asked the two men to comment on their qualifications to serve a heartbeat away from the presidency. Cheney’s response clinched matters. He noted his effectiveness derives from his having “made it clear that I don’t have any further political aspirations myself.”
In short, “I think it allows the president to know that my only agenda is his agenda. I’m not worried about what some precinct committeemen in Iowa were thinking of me with respect to the next round of caucuses of 2008.” In a flash, he had driven a wedge between the two Johns of the Democratic ticket. Think of it as a final brushback pitch.
And think back a few months, when many Republicans were seriously contemplating dumping Cheney in favor of John McCain. Once again, the best trades are those that aren’t made.