Post-debate debate: Networks and cables v. MSNBC

Immediately after the vice presidential debate, Media Matters for America documented the media's reactions on cable and network television. While the clear majority of commentators described the debate as a draw, MSNBC pundits expressed a dramatically different view, declaring Vice President Dick Cheney the undisputed victor. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell claimed Cheney “steamroll[ed] over Edwards on foreign policy points”; Hardball host Chris Matthews said Cheney “was out on a hunting trip. ... And he found squirrel”; and Scarborough Country host Joe Scarborough proclaimed: “Edwards got obliterated by Dick Cheney.” By contrast, conservative Washington Post columnist George Will said, on ABC, “I think both these men did a superior job.”

According to a CBS poll, 41 percent of uncommitted debate watchers said Edwards won the debate, 28 percent said Cheney won, and 31 percent thought it was a tie. ABC's “scientific” poll, weighted towards Republicans (38 percent Republicans, 31 percent Democrats, 27 percent Independents), found that 43 percent of viewers thought Cheney won the debate. Thirty-five percent thought Edwards won, and 19 percent thought it was a tie.


ANDREA MITCHELL (NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent): I think Dick Cheney did awfully well, first of all. Putting John Edwards in his place. Saying, “I have been presiding over the Senate, and I didn't meet you until tonight.” Talking about his not having been on the job was pretty devastating. [...] Edwards did not make a strong enough argument against what's happening on the ground, and let Dick Cheney steamroll over him.

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host of MSNBC's Hardball): Will it be apparent enough to The New York Times to mention tomorrow, will the liberal press admit Cheney won? [...] The analogy would be a water pistol against a machine gun. Every once in a while, he would take a squirt at the vice president, and the vice president would turn the howitzer on the guy. [...] Dick Cheney was prepared. He was loaded for bear tonight. He was out on a hunting trip looking for squirrel. And he found squirrel. Does anybody share that? Because I think the newspaper is going to share that tomorrow. He had tremendous ammunition at his disposal. Tremendous opposition research, on the absentee rating of both candidates on the Democratic ticket, he was able to defend, almost, almost his former position as CEO of Halliburton, but on every other topic, he was in to hit home runs and did so.

JON MEACHAM (Newsweek managing editor): I think the vice president did very, very well. He put in a strong and serene performance, compared to Edwards who I think seemed like Kerry-lite. He seemed to have a series of talking points he wanted to get in. [...] I think that's the key point. I think John Edwards was busy delivering a stump speech all night, while Dick Cheney showed up as the trial lawyer.

JOE SCARBOROUGH (host of MSNBC's Scarborough Country): I tell you, tonight, no doubt about it, Edwards got obliterated by Dick Cheney. [...] I think the SNL shot, Saturday Night Live shot this weekend is actually going to be facial reactions John Edwards has, every time he's zinged, there was no doubt about it, he was in over his head. It really wasn't weak performance by Edwards so much as extraordinarily strong performance by Dick Cheney.

RON REAGAN (MSNBC political analyst): I don't think we saw in this debate what we saw last time, which was a pretty clear winner that would be obvious to anybody. [...] I think the chattering classes, and I include all of us among them, will come out on the side -- there was a stature gap there, and it was to Cheney's advantage. I am not sure that's going to be quite so apparent, though, to the general public.

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FRED BARNES (Weekly Standard executive editor): I thought what mattered was the first half of the debate, and that was foreign policy and 9-11 and the war on terrorism in Iraq, and Cheney won that part because he did two things. [...] Cheney set the stage for what the president will probably say tomorrow attacking John Kerry's 20-year record on national security in the Senate. [...] Now, the second half, on domestic policy, I thought Edwards did very well, and he probably won that part, but it was the first part that mattered.

MORTON M. KONDRACKE (Roll Call executive editor): Look, the basic dynamic of the race is that Bush is ahead, there was a half-life of about a couple of days of Kerry's superior performance in the first debate. Edwards kept referring back to it: "[Y]ou remember how effective he was in the first debate," as if to remind people that they liked Kerry for that brief moment. What happened was, a couple of days later, people went back to believing that President Bush is a superior leader. I think on the basis of tonight what Cheney did was to say that 90-minute performance that you saw cannot mask a 30-year record of weakness on foreign policy, and I think that's a point that President Bush will drive home again tomorrow.

CECI CONNOLLY (Washington Post staff writer): Bottom line, hard to see how many votes were moved tonight in either direction. I think if you started off as a partisan supporting Bush-Cheney, you felt good about the performance. [...] A draw in the sense that you were not going to change any minds.

WILLIAM KRISTOL (Weekly Standard editor): I thought Cheney was extremely strong in reminding people about Kerry's voting record and consistent record -- basically consistent record -- on national defense and security issues, which is dovish. Edwards -- I don't think sounded like Kerry, if you go back and compare the transcripts. Edwards was “we didn't have to go to war in Iraq.” He didn't seem to acknowledge we have to finish the job. We have to win in Iraq. We had to kill Zarqawi. Cheney hit that and Edwards kept going with diversion.


JEFF GREENFIELD (CNN senior analyst): Let's take a look at what we were looking for and see what happened tonight. Our first question was, what is Cheney's target? Here there's no question, his target is John Kerry and his alleged lack of credibility, one of the toughest lines of tonight, if he can't stand up to Howard Dean and changing his votes on the war in Iraq, Cheney alleged, how could he stand up to Al Qaeda? ... I think I can tell you, Wolf [Blitzer], that the conservatives who were decidedly unhappy with George Bush last week were happier with Dick Cheney tonight. The Democrats, the pro-Kerry people were perfectly happy with John Edwards. My sense -- and you know how much I hate predictions -- is that this debate may come out much more evenly in the coverage and in the polls than the first one, which really tees up the town meeting in St. Louis on Friday as perhaps the key moment.

CARLOS WATSON (CNN political analyst): I thought it was a great debate. It was very interesting, very substantive. They covered a wide array of topics. Everything from AIDS to Iran to the global test issue that you heard about earlier. I think that Jeff is right. I think that if you're a Cheney supporter, you were happy, if you're an Edwards supporter, you were happy. But Wolf, I think in the first half, when they talked about terrorism and they talked about national security issues, I think Edwards landed some real blows. I think if you're an undecided voter or even, frankly, if you're a soft voter, I think you will take another look on Friday at what John Kerry has to say. I think the vice president and John Edwards both did their jobs, but I think Edwards probably did a better job with persuadable voters.

CANDY CROWLEY (CNN correspondent): Probably for John Edwards, the best moment was when he turned to Cheney and said, you know, Mr. Cheney -- Mr. Vice President, I don't think Americans can take another four years of this administration. Sort of a rendition of Ronald Reagan's famous line of “Are you better off?” That clearly was one that he'd been waiting to deliver. Obviously an effective line. I'm not sure if the idea was for John Edwards to come in here and show the American people that, in fact, he can be a heartbeat away insofar as this is seen as a draw or as both of them doing very well. One would have to believe that that means that John Edwards did pass that test. That's one of those things that we kind of have to wait for a little while to see how people, in fact, react. They're not unhappy with this. I think you noticed with the interview with Mary Beth Cahill, certainly not unhappy with John Edwards's performance, believing obviously, that he held his own.

JUDY WOODRUFF (CNN anchor): Neither side wants to acknowledge that their guy was anything less than fabulous. The Democrats are saying, we won, we put it away. The Republicans are saying Dick Cheney gave John Edwards a good old-fashioned whipping, John Edwards didn't know what he was talking about. But I talked to, also, reporters who, you know, one assumes they're coming at this from the center. In their opinion this debate was close to a draw. And what they go on to say, though, is that if the Republicans if Dick Cheney was hoping to put away John Edwards by virtue of the vice president's considerable experience, he didn't do that tonight. John Edwards came back. He parried. He -- there was no charge that laid on the table that wasn't responded to. Having said that, there is a consensus that it was a draw. But we will see. It is still early in the reaction time out here.

WOLF BLITZER (CNN anchor): Jeff Greenfield, the fact that it was a draw, isn't that effectively a win for John Edwards, the newcomer, as opposed to the vice president?

GREENFIELD: Well, I guess so. ... One very quick note, this whole notion that people from each campaign pouring into this area to claim their guy won, it would be a great idea if you could abolish that. The day that somebody comes out from the campaign and says, you know, my guy really stunk out the joint, I will personally send that person a check for $100. This is the most useless exercise in postmodern media coverage that I know of. And I think, really, enough's enough.


TOM BROKAW (anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News): The vice presidential candidates demonstrated tonight that you can have hand-to-hand combat while seated. These are the sharpest, most cutting personal and policy attacks of the campaign so far. They were commanding and tough adversaries. Dick Cheney saying at one point he does not believe that John Kerry has the conviction to carry through the fight against terrorism and he said about the two of them, you could not stand up to Howard Dean, how can you stand up to terrorism? For his part, John Edwards said a long resume does not mean good judgment. [...] Sixty-three-year-old Cheney from Wyoming, the 51-year-old political novice. Effectively, two different styles. Dick Cheney reminded me of George Foreman, kind of a slow gait. But a powerful right hand when he unleashed it in a number of areas as he went after the Kerry-Edwards ticket. John Edwards, for his sake, you can see the folksy courtroom style that he had. It was so successful for him as he played out against, what he says, is more of the same of this administration and suggesting the American people that it's time for change.

TIM RUSSERT (Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press moderator): Both men played very much to their political base, Tom. John Edwards came out of the gate and said, “You're not being straight about Iraq.” He wanted this debate to be about Iraq. How did Dick Cheney counter? If you want to win the war on terror, you need George Bush. Then we had an interesting exchange, whereas you noted, John Edwards saying just because you want experience, Mr. Vice President, doesn't mean you have good judgment. Cheney countered by saying, in effect, you're a young man in too much of a hurry. I preside over the Senate, and I never met you until tonight. I don't know how much of this debate will move those swing independent voters, convince them to lock in with either George Bush or John Kerry. But we clearly understood again these strategies -- Iraq versus war on terror, roll back a tax cut, make it permanent, emphasis on health care and on education and more spending of the Democratic side. Vice President Cheney saying, “Stay the course.”


BOB SCHIEFFER (Face the Nation host): I'll tell you, Dan [Rather], this was not the vice presidential debate that we saw in 2000, when you had the avuncular Cheney trading good-natured barbs with a whimsical Joe Lieberman. This was a very testy debate. The vice president tonight had the unfortunate task of defending a war that does not appear to be going very well these days, on the very day that the former top civilian official in Iraq was making a speech saying that we went about it in the wrong way. That was a tall hill for the vice president to climb tonight, and he had to explain it as best he could. And he was going up against a very good trial lawyer. But he did what trial lawyers do, he began to poke holes in Cheney's arguments, he began to probe. Mainly it seemed to me that his strategy tonight was simply to raise questions about the credibility of this administration, and on a day when the former top official in Iraq was saying they had gone about the war in the wrong way, it seemed to me that he had an easier task tonight.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (This Week anchor): I don't think that either candidate tonight did much to sway any voters who were on the fence. And I didn't see any new line of attack being opened up tonight.

PETER JENNINGS (ABC anchor and senior editor): Anybody who thought that Senator Edwards was going to be rolled by the experienced vice president, I think will have a second thought. But perhaps those people who were disposed to the president will think that Mr. Bush did well today. And those who are disposed toward Mr. Kerry will think that Mr. Kerry -- Mr. Edwards did well.

GEORGE WILL (Washington Post columnist and ABC contributor): I think both the men did what they were supposed to do. They did something perhaps they were not supposed to do, which is show the top of each ticket how this is done. I think both these men did a superior job. Both campaigns have noticed, I believe, in the last six months, that their candidate does better when the focus is on the other guy's candidate. And therefore, you saw tonight a relentless attack from both sides tonight. Particularly Mr. Cheney did what a lot of Republicans felt the president neglected sufficiently to do, that is to raise the record of John Kerry in the Senate. And Mr. Edwards gave just as good as he got, as you indicated, the first words after he thanked Case Western Reserve was -- Mr. Cheney, you're not leveling with the American people. You're not being straight, therefore you're being dishonest. This was a tough debate, but remarkably civil, all told.

MARK HALPERIN (ABC News political director): My sense was it was pretty much of a draw. Both men were strong, as George [Stephanopoulos] and George [Will] said, in making the case, in defending their principal, the top of the ticket.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS (presidential historian and ABC contributor): You know, in 1984 there was another vice presidential debate, four or five days after the first presidential one. Ronald Reagan had done very badly against Walter Mondale the first time. People felt that he was not really up to his usual performance. George Bush running for vice president -- George Bush the elder -- did quite well. That sort of stopped the bleeding. And for people who feel that George W. Bush, the last two days, has been suffering from a bad performance in his first debate, people may conclude the same thing. ... Senator Edwards served Senator Kerry well. I think he did. ... It was a little bit tough because you saw Vice President Cheney basically trying to say this is a guy who's unqualified. I've been president of the Senate for four years. This is the first time I met John Edwards tonight, he said. That's an old tradition. 1988, very famously, Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayle, “You're no Jack Kennedy.” He [Cheney] was trying to do the same thing.

CLAIRE SHIPMAN (ABC News senior national correspondent): It's interesting, it was a very different debate to watch than the one we watched with Dick Cheney four years ago. The Edwards team was determined to put him [Cheney] on the defensive and Cheney is hard to get on the defensive, it's hard to get him mad in public. And they did it to some extent. At the same time the vice president was determined to keep turning the subject back to terror; he did it.

PETER JENNINGS (ABC anchor and senior editor): In terms of our scientific poll ... we have now got the results of this. Our director of our polling, Gary Langer, tells us that it is slightly weighted towards Republicans in terms of who we actually polled. There's the “Who won?” thing today, Vice President Cheney 43 percent, Senator Edwards 35 percent, and a tie for 19 percent. Take a look, if we have it there, at the number -- percentage of people we polled: 38 percent Republicans, 31 percent Democrats, 27 percent Independents. [...] Interesting we all think there wasn't a heck of a lot in it in terms of [choosing] one man or the other, but our poll, I just remind you, thought that 43 percent thought for Mr. Cheney and 35 percent went for Mr. Edwards.