While the rest of the TV commentariat declared the Edwards-Cheney duel a draw, Chris Matthews and his MSNBC crew threw their arms around the gruff old veep.
So what debate was the crew at MSNBC watching Tuesday night?
Following the vice-presidential faceoff, which most observers declared a draw, giving Cheney points for articulating an Iraq strategy in a way President Bush failed to do last week, and Edwards credit for holding his own against the much more experienced veep, the MSNBC team of pundits, led by “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, immediately declared the debate a knockout for Cheney.
The Cheney group hug began before Edwards had even exited the debate stage in Cleveland, with NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell declaring, “Dick Cheney did awfully well in putting John Edwards in his place.” MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, who didn’t flinch in naming Sen. John Kerry the debate winner last week, declared, “There’s no doubt about it, Edwards got obliterated by Dick Cheney.” (Perhaps he was trying to appease his right-wing fans who, he later remarked, flayed him alive for giving the debate to Kerry last week.) Newsweek’s managing editor Jon Meachem chimed in that Edwards seemed like “Kerry-lite,” while host Matthews skewered Edwards in a strangely personal way, reminiscent of the way Matthews hounded President Bill Clinton throughout the impeachment process.
“I don’t think this well-rehearsed and well-briefed senator from North Carolina was ready for the assault,” said Matthews, who insisted, “Dick Cheney was loaded for bear tonight. He went looking for squirrel and he found squirrel” in the form of Edwards. He later suggested Edwards often looked stunned, as if he’d been “slapped” by Cheney’s devastating debating technique. Matthews also demanded to know if the “liberal press” would admit “Cheney won.”
Yet nowhere else on the television landscape — not even on Fox News — was Cheney crowned the winner. Most pundits saw the debate as an obvious draw:
— ABC News political director Mark Halperin told PBS’s Charlie Rose the debate was a “nonevent because it didn’t change the dynamic.”
— Surveying fellow journalists covering the debate, CNN’s Judy Woodruff, host of “Inside Politics,” reported, “Their opinion is this debate was close to a draw.” She added, “If Dick Cheney was hoping to put away John Edwards, he didn’t do that tonight.”
— David Gergen, who has counseled both Democratic and Republican administrations, agreed that the debate was a standoff, telling CNN’s Larry King that “it ran out of electricity about halfway through. It began to drag.”
— Fox News’ Bill Kristol said, “Cheney clearly won the first half on national security. I think Edwards won the second half” on domestic issues. Kristol argued the first half was more important.
— “I can imagine Democratic living rooms, cheering every time Edwards punched. And Republican living rooms when Cheney punched,” said ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “But I don’t think either candidate did much to sway voters on the fence.”
ABC News’ instant poll found more viewers thought Cheney won the debate, by a margin of 43 to 35. But as ABC anchor Peter Jennings noted, the poll was weighted heavily toward Republican respondents because the network found more Republicans watched the debate.
CBS ran a scientific survey of 200 uncommitted voters nationwide, which found Edwards won the debate by a clear margin, 41-29. The CBS survey found Cheney suffered a dramatic gender gap among women voters.
None of that seemed to matter inside the MSNBC echo chamber. Matthews and his crew had their story line — Cheney won big! — and they were sticking with it, with Matthews even wondering out loud if the choice of Edwards for V.P. “casts doubt on the judgment of John Kerry,” and whether Edwards may “not be ready to be vice president of the United States.”
Which again raises the question: What debate was Matthews watching, and what did Edwards ever do to him?
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush." More Eric Boehlert.
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