We all knew that Teresa Heinz Kerry was a liability to the Kerry campaign. Having enjoyed, so to speak, a rare sighting of John Edwards, we can add him to the elder Johns list of liabilities. Although hes not in the wifes class as an unguided missile or weapon of mass distraction, he is a world-class dud. Predictably ineffective in the foreign policy portion of the debate, Edwards was somewhat surprisingly weak when it came to domestic policy as well.
By contrast, Vice President Cheney was sober, sure-handed, and authoritative, letting very little that was said tonight or last Thursday pass and administering well-deserved rebukes to both Kerry and Edwards for their demagogic treatment of the costs of the Iraq war and for their disrespect for the coalition and our Iraqi partners. Whats more, he accomplished something the Kerry camp has clearly tried to avoid: he shined a bright light on John Kerrys long record of irresponsible defense votes in the Senate. To borrow a Kerryism that could have been a Bushism, Dick Cheney left John Kerrys defense and foreign policy credibility in "shatters."
I said that Edwards was a dud. On reflection, Im tempted to revise that. He produced an explosion all right, but the only one injured by itask the Swifties if this was the first timewas John Kerry. Pressed by moderator Gwen Ifill to tell us what a Kerry Administration would have done about Saddam Hussein, Edwards virtually conceded that the answer is "nothing." If the inspectors could find no weapons of mass destruction, then Saddam couldnt have been regarded as a threat. No threat, no action. No action, the continued suffering of the Iraqi people, the continued corruption of the U.N.-sponsored "Oil for Food" (or was it weapons and palaces?) program, the continued support of terrorists like Abu Nidal, the Palestinian suicide bombers, and Zarqawi, and, ultimately, a reconstitution of any WMD program that had been suspended in the face of the inspections regime. Not to mention no dismantling of the Libyan WMD program and the al Qaeda Khan nuclear proliferation program. Let me repeat: if John Kerry had been President, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, still be sponsoring terrorism, and still be maiming and killing his people; Libya would still have a nuclear weapons program; and Pakistans "Islamic bomb" would still be available to the highest bidder. Im glad John Edwards cleared that up for us.
Edwards also made it clear that, in his view, there is no coalition fighting in Iraq. The result, he said of "there not being a coalition" is that were paying 90% of the costs and taking 90% of the casualties, figures which Cheney authoritatively disputed, by the way. Wow! Weve gone from a coalition of the bribed and coerced to no coalition at all. Dont forget; this man would be a heartbeat away.
As for domestic policy, in my judgment Cheney fought Edwards to at least a draw here. Neither man did a particularly good job of rising above laundry lists of policies to articulate a compelling overall domestic policy rationale. I dont think anyone expected it from Cheney, but here was a place that Edwards had to deliver. And he didnt.
Where does this debate leave us? For those who have ears to hear, the Vice President effectively reclaimed any ground that Senator Kerry had recently gained on national security and defense policy. Indeed, Kerry is arguably in worse shape than before last Thursday because now he has to explain his Senate voting record.
I believe that President Bush can articulate a compelling rationale for his approach to domestic policy in the remaining debates. The first thing he should do is reread Arnold Schwarzeneggers convention speech, which provided one of the best accounts of the "opportunity society" that I have heard recently. And then he should revisit his speeches on the faith-based initiative, where he concedes that the American Dream isnt yet real for everyone but argues that the hope that will make it real comes not from government bureaucrats but from "the armies of compassion." George Bushs domestic policy slogan could be "make love, not war." That is, hold us all to "the universal call" to "love our neighbors" and reject the class warfare and statism implicit in the Kerry-Edwards domestic agenda.
Four weeks to go, and Im liking the Presidents chances.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.