Win or lose, one thing is certain about the election: When they debate, Dick Cheney is going to beat the holy heck out of John Edwards.
Even factoring in the high expectations for Cheney, the vice presidential debate will be a blowout. Edwards is a smart, slick lawyer who occasionally fumbles important policy details (such as when he forgot what DOMA was during a New Hampshire debate). Cheney is the most competent vice president in recent memory, a tranquil and immovable presence, and a detail machine. Their tilt should make Quayle-Bentsen look like a squeaker.
Not that the vice presidential debate will have much impact on the general election -- it'll probably have close to none. But it will be one of the few moments over the course of the 2004 campaign that Republicans will want to savor for years to come.
Tonight is a preview.
In Boston, the Democrats campaigned on domestic issues and made extended detours into national security. The entire Republican convention is oriented around the war on terrorism, and Vice President Cheney's speech is no exception. He has passages, here and there, about subjects such as education ("America's schools are now on an upward path to excellence") and the economy ("businesses are creating jobs"). But these moments are pro forma.
Cheney posits that this election is important because it will set the course of American policy in the war on terror for the medium term. He likens it to the years immediately following the end of World War II, when containment and deterrence became the U.S. policy. "Those policies containing Communism, deterring attack by the Soviet Union, and promoting the rise of democracy, were carried out by Democratic and Republican presidents alike," he says.
From there, the vice president launches a civil, but fairly damning critique of John Kerry's Senate record. "Senator Kerry opposed Ronald Reagan's major defense initiatives . . . voted against Operation Desert Storm . . . talks about leading a 'more sensitive war on terror . . . He declared at the Democratic convention that he will forcefully defend America after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked . . ."
His final flourish is the most withering assessment of Kerry which has been made to date: "In his years in Washington, John Kerry has been one of a hundred votes in the United States Senate and very fortunately on matters of national security, his views rarely prevailed. . . . A senator can be wrong for 20 years, without consequence to the nation. But a president, a president always casts the deciding vote." It is stern stuff, delivered without histrionics.
He never gets credit for it, but Dick Cheney is a fine, fine speaker. He doesn't wave his hands or bite his lip or smirk or punch the air with his fist. His voice does not rise and fall or sing-song to the crowd. He is calm, deliberate, grounded, and as a result, quite a powerful presence. It is one thing to be lambasted by a hysterical screamer, like Howard Dean. It is quite another to be taken to the woodshed by an adult. John Kerry found that out tonight. John Edwards will have the same opportunity in a few short weeks.
Zell Miller, of course, passed "stern" exactly eight sentences into his speech, when he declared, "my family is more important than my party." From there, Katie bar the door.
The first thought that crosses one's mind while listening to Miller's speech is that someone ought to fetch the fine people at the New York Times some smelling salts. Perhaps a bucketful. All through Miller's remarks, I could –- literally -- hear liberal reporters seated around me tsk-tsking and exclaiming, under their breath, "That's not fair!"
(As an aside: Can you guess the words which will be used to describe Miller's speech this morning? "Harsh," "diatribe," "smear," "strident," "partisan," "attack," "personal," "negative," "severe," "abrasive"? Anything else? "Rough," maybe. Oh, and I'll see you an "angry" and raise you an "ugly.")
Miller thunders that "nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators." "It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag." The ovation he receives for these sentiments is rapturous.
Mind you, Miller himself doesn't seem to be having any fun. He's indignant. He is so piqued, so outraged, that he wastes no time waiting for applause, or letting the crowd chant or participate in call-and-response with him. He just barrels on, throwing haymaker after haymaker. A great many of them ("It is not their patriotism -- it is their judgment that has been sorely lacking. They claimed Carter's pacifism would lead to peace. They were wrong. They claimed Reagan's defense buildup would lead to war. They were wrong.") land true.
Others do not. Portions of Miller's speech really are unfair. "While young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief," he charges. Surely this is true only for a small subset of Democrats -- the 18 percent or so who supported Howard Dean and were soundly rejected by mainstream Democrats in the primaries.
Miller also says that "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations." This is expressly untrue. In his acceptance speech in Boston, Kerry said, "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security."
These passages will be used to try to discredit Miller, to brand him an attack dog, to tar the Republicans as having descended into malicious negativity. Had Arnold Schwarzenegger or John McCain or Rudy Giuliani given this speech, those charges would stick.
The problem for John Kerry is that Zell Miller isn't a Republican. He's Kerry's fellow Democrat.
The bulk of Wednesday night's prime-time speeches were attacks against Kerry. What does that mean? It means that Republicans are running a campaign of contrast -- they are running on ideological division -- at least tonight. How to square this with Monday night's outreach to Democrats and undecideds?
Part of the answer is that Republicans want to have it both ways: They want to reach out, and go very, very negative on their opponent. There is some precedent for this. In 1988 George H.W. Bush ran a campaign which said, essentially, (1) I'm kinder and gentler and, (2) Dukakis is a nut. This mixed message worked for Bush 41. Still, the mixed message is not what a strong incumbent typically strives for.
So what is Team Bush trying to do? Their message is unified on a basic level. The one universally coherent message this week is that Republicans believe the only topic which matters is the war on terrorism. If that is your strategy, then both tacks -- the trumpeting of Bush's record and the attacking of Kerry's -- are part of the same whole.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Jonathan V. Last