THE VICE presidential debate ended without a clear winner. In terms of style and demeanor, there was nothing like the clear contrast between John Kerry's strong presence and George W. Bush's apparent lack of self-confidence. Vice President Dick Cheney came across as more mature (not just in the sense of actual age) and more authoritative, but he also seemed rather gruff. Senator John Edwards was much more personable and charismatic but seemed almost too boyish at times.
On substantive arguments, too, the record was mixed. Edwards was stronger on domestic issues; on the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, the debate was probably a draw.
Edwards emphasized the same points that Kerry did: the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden, the fact that the US allies have shared little of the cost of the war in Iraq, and the fact that the administration went to war without a plan to win the peace. Cheney's description of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed much too sunny given most of the news coming from those countries, and those claims largely fell flat.
On one point, however, the vice president was able to neutralize a part of his opponent's argument: In response to Edwards's statement that Americans account for 90 percent of the allied casualties in Iraq, Cheney suggested that pro-government Iraqi troops should be counted as part of the alliance and pounced on Edwards for "demeaning" their sacrifice by leaving them out. Edwards attempted to defend himself, but Cheney effectively silenced him.
Edwards scored a strong rhetorical victory when he mentioned the no-bid contract given in Iraq to Cheney's former company, Halliburton, and listed some of Halliburton's alleged misdeeds. Cheney's attempt to respond by saying that Halliburton was being brought up as a "smokescreen" to cover for Kerry and Edwards's mediocre record in the Senate led to another direct hit from Edwards as he pointedly attacked Cheney's voting record in Congress, portraying him as an ogre who opposed Head Start, Martin Luther King Day, and a ban on plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors.
Nonetheless, this debate showed that there is a powerful argument that works in favor of the Republican ticket, and Cheney used it more effectively than Bush did.
Kerry does have a record, generally, of opposition to US military strength going all the way back to the days of the Cold War. Kerry and Edwards do deliver a mixed message of, as Cheney put it, "it's the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time, and oh, by the way, send troops." Kerry has at times demeaned our allies, including Iraq Prime Minister Allawi.
One of the strongest challenges to Edwards came not from Cheney but from moderator Gwen Ifill, when she pointed out that "French and German officials have both said they have no intention even if John Kerry is elected of sending any troops into Iraq for any peacekeeping effort" and asked if that made Kerry's promise to internationalize the war naive. Edwards had no real response.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.