Wednesday, October 06, 2004



Like many Americans, I watched the Vice Presidential Debate last night. I'm not so much a Democrat as a spirited anti-Bushite, so I was solidly behind John Edwards, and, since he's a hotshot trial lawyer, I expected him to win.

I think he did, primarily because Vice President Cheney played faster and looser with the facts. But Cheney immediately proved himself a formidable opponent, staying on message, not losing his temper despite being obviously peeved, and countering Edwards' hardest body blows with solid counterpunches.

In the end I was left feeling exhausted and rather sick, as if I had just witnessed a dogfight.

I have never witnessed an actual dogfight, in which trained dogs bred to be ferocious go at each other in an enclosed pit surrounded by wagering fans. But when I imagine it like a novelist imagines a fictional scene, I fancy it would begin with high levels of anticipation and that the intense excitement caused by the frenzy of the dogs would be a rush; but then, as it winds down towards its gruesome end, that a feeling of digust at the savagery, the blood, and the gore, combined with the emotional letdown, would cause nausea.

Both men got throat-grips when the other had essentially no defense, as when Cheney tried to defend the progress of the war (a tough task under any circumstances, but especially in the immediate wake of Paul Bremer's criticisms), or Edwards tried to defend his record and his credentials to be President. Both men mauled the other repeatedly, directly impugning the other's veracity or intentions. I'm guessing that by a rigorous point score, the Vice President would outstrip the nominee on negativity, but viscerally that too seemed a tie.

Perhaps the clearest thing brought out by the Vice Presidential debate is how much smarter Cheney is than Bush. I kept thinking that it was a good thing for our side that Kerry didn't have to debate Cheney. Kerry might be a statesman compared to Bush, but Cheney is probably a cannier and more skillful politician than either of them. We got a good match in that sense, matching our young, strong, but inexperienced pit bull against their old, grizzled, but battle-toughened pit bull.

Still, the whole thing was a bit much. Too much snarling and bared fangs on both sides. To me, it's not a mitigating circumstance that Edwards has roughly the same amount of experience as George W. Bush did in 2000. Not only did Bush have no foriegn policy expertise in 2000, he had very little foreign policy knowledge; and not only did he have no foreign policy experience, he seemed not even to have much interest in it. However much anybody might have detested either Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon, it would have been difficult to fault the level of interest of either of those men in foreign affairs—both were passionate about the subject and, in their own ways, deeply knowledgable. Now there are aching holes in a thousand American families thanks to Bush's crude understanding of the dynamics of diplomacy. But that fact doesn't make Edwards' lack of experience any easier to excuse—more like the opposite.

But Edwards isn't running for President, he's running for Vice-President. A crucial—and needed—distinction. I voted for Edwards in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, specifically hoping to help him gain the no. 2 spot on the ticket. But I do think it's a good thing he's running for Vice President and not for President. He'll need a lot of street schooling—say, a good eight years as Kerry's VP—before he'll be ready for that.

@ 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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