I didn't write about the Presidential debate until the morning after it happened because I wanted to give some of my thoughts more time to come into clearer focus. In retrospect I think some of my first reactions may have been diluted by the "post-game" coverage I heard between the time of the debate and the next morning when I wrote my bløg entry. I'm going to try something different this time and write my thoughts immediately following the debate.
- Biggest Surprise
The VP came off as way less evil than I expected. From the start of the debate until just before the closing statements he presented the Administration's case in a way that made me feel better about them than I have in a long time. This is the exact opposite of what I expected, since I figured the contrast between the dashing John Edwards and curmudgeonly Dick Cheney would really leave the Republicans in bad shape.
One point in particular caught my attention during the pair of questions about gay marriage. I was really shocked to see Cheney make what seemed to me to be a complete break in policy statement from the President. Of the many things in current American politics that bother me, perhaps the worst is the way in which candidates must adhere unswervingly to some company line in order to "please the base." Instead of talking about real ways to benefit the People, they say whatever seems most likely to get them elected. In this particular case, with W supporting the absolutely ludicrous Constitutional ban on gay marriage (which is both pathetic, outright discrimination against gays and a disgraceful affront to the Constitution) Cheney is put in the difficult position of defending that policy vis-a-vis his own support for and love of his lesbian daughter. And for one moment he absolutely refused to sell her out and defend W's support of the Constitutional ban. He gave a watery, legalistic defense of the administration position in the first question (directed at him) and then declined the entirety of his 90 second response to the next question, with the exception of thanking Edwards for kindly mentioning his family. This was a major point in Cheney's favor for me. As W's running mate, Cheney's foremost task in this debate is to defend the administration's policies. And for once a politician refused to sell out his personal convictions to further the cause. I wholeheartedly believe that will be the only moment in all four debates where one of the candidates says something with a goal other than trying to get elected. It made Cheney seem much more human than Edwards, which I previously thought an impossible task.
- Biggest Letdown
The Veep's closing statement was terrible. His tone of voice switched from an intellectual debating note to this dull drone. He went from thinking about what he was saying to reciting some rote mantra that had been drilled into him. Plus the content of his closing remarks were practically a threat to American voters; "We're going to be attacked and it will be your fault if you don't reelect us." He painted this maudlin picture of current American affairs that left me feeling like he was simply preparing for the inevitable horror instead of trying to create a better alternative.
- Biggest Contrast
Cheney's sepulchral closing followed directly on what I found to be the most eloquent 2 minutes in either debate so far. Edwards hit an absolute home run by somehow managing to tell that story about his childhood without sounding naïve. We're desperately aimless as a nation right now: lousy economy, war in Iraq that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, subjected to intrusions on our civil rights in the name of ineffectual safety measures, watching a color coded warning level without any clue how much danger we're really in. What we need is a direction and a belief in a better future. We need an image of that future right now, and John Edwards opened a window and revealed an ever-so-brief glimpse of what that might be. Bravo.
- Biggest Non-Shocker
I'd give both of these guys a C minus for content. The debate suffered from the same problems that cripple seemingly all modern political debates: mindless repetition of vague blandishments. Edwards kept hammering away that everything the Veep said was a distortion and Cheney kept saying, "The senator just has his facts wrong." OK. We get the picture. The "factual" statements are probably very specifically construed to present the data in the way that paints their faction in the best possible light. Let's move on already.
Plus there's Cheney's insistence that "we've made real progress," much as the President reminded us all how running the country and quashing maniacal insurgents is "hard work." I think people are thirsting for a some specific ideas on how to handle these problems, not toothless promises that things are proceeding apace. Not that I think the Kerry-Edwards duo has done much better. So far it seems as if they want to halve the deficit, provide world class schools and health care for everyone, double the number of active duty troops in the Armed Forces and employ everybody, all while only increasing taxes on the extremely wealthy. Sounds like a fantasy to me.
- Biggest Annoying Habit
It started really grating on me when Edwards kept flashing his pearly whites and saying, "I don't need to tell the American people this, they can see it for themselves." If that's the case then shut up already.
Is there a way to have a political campaign today without all this hot air? Probably not until we've totally revamped the way we elect our government. Viable third party candidates inject a much needed dose of reality into these events. There's nothing like a good Barbara Johnson to break up the mindsplitting tedium of listening to Mitt Romney and Shannon O'Brien whine at each other.