Before Dick Cheney uttered one sentence in Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, he scored an impressive victory—namely, he managed to switch the subject. For the past week, the story had been the first presidential debate, in which George W. Bush was soundly spanked by Senator John Kerry. Network anchors busied themselves with montages of Bush’s face contorted in varying shades of contempt. Meanwhile, insta-pundits brandished insta-polls attempting to divine the long-term impact.
Say what you want about Cheney’s performance, but he shifted the headlines away from his boss—at least until the next debate, this Friday.
“I think the big thing the debate accomplished was that it ended the news cycles about the first presidential debate,” says Steven Keller, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “Anything that changes the topic after a weak debate is beneficial to your side.”
Cheney did that almost merely by showing up, but he also managed to make news by abandoning the cloak of civility he donned in 2000 for his joust with Senator Joe Lieberman. The VP pounded Edwards for everything from appeasing Howard Dean to having a spotty attendance record in the Senate. Those blows were not unprovoked. After Cheney gave a relatively benign answer to moderator Gwen Ifill’s first question, Edwards immediately tackled his opponent, accusing him of “not being straight with the American people.” Edwards would go on to highlight Cheney’s ties to Halliburton and his votes against Meals on Wheels and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Halfway into the debate, however, Cheney threw what looked like a knockout punch. “Frankly, you have a record in the Senate that’s not very distinguished,” he said. “You’ve missed 33 out of 36 meetings in the Judiciary Committee, almost 70 percent of the meetings of the Intelligence Committee. . . . Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you ‘Senator Gone.’ You’ve got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate. Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of the Senate, the presiding officer. I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.”
“It was a nice slam, no question about it,” says Keller. But what looked like solid shot flush to Edwards’s squared jaw evaporated into a phantom punch. By this morning, the Associated Press was reporting that the two had actually met at least twice before. There was even photo evidence. “If that soundbite gets replayed over and over again, it now has the context of being untrue,” says Alan Schroeder, author of Televised Presidential Debates: 40 years of High-Risk TV. “I say that because Al Gore took a lot of heat in 2000 for making exaggerations, and that became a big story, and it shaped public opinion. Is this going to stick as a story? It seems pretty minor.”
As does this entire debate, from the perspective of history. Despite being perhaps the most powerful vice president ever, Cheney is still Bush’s second (theoretically). Remember Lloyd Bentsen’s famous trouncing of Dan Quayle in ’88? “Bush still beat Dukakis in a walk,” says Schroeder.