October 6, 2004

The Surprise of the Veep Debate: Cheney Defeats Bush!


At Overstated.net, Cameron Marlow (a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab) created a clever utility, called the Debate Spotter, to reveal recurrent themes emphasized by the candidates in the Presidential and the Vice-Presidential debate. Specifically, the tool can identify the most popular phrases from the official transcript. In the Presidential debate, for example, one of Bush’s most popular phrases was “hard work” — which he used thirteen times. (Here’s the link to the Bush-Kerry analysis.)

When looking at the results from the Vice Presidential debate, what jumps out immediately is the fact Edwards used the phrase “John Kerry” a whopping 36 times. When I saw that, it made me wonder how many times Cheney referred to President Bush. Curiously, in Marlow’s summary of Cheney’s top phrases (above), the President doesn’t merit a reference.

Using the Debate Spotter myself, I was only able to find 10 instances in which Cheney mentions George Bush or President Bush” or “the President” (independent of himself). It’s not just that Cheney makes fewer references to the top of the ticket, however. According to the Debate Spotter, Cheney has a tendency to put himself on equal footing with Bush or highlight himself alone. (I counted 3 instances in which Cheney refers to himself and the President in partnership–“The President and I “; “the President and myself”; and “working alongside the President”). And, as Marlow indicates, Dick Cheney makes an impressive 7 references to Dick Cheney (through the use of the phrase “Vice President”).

It goes even beyond that, though. What also pops up are references suggesting Cheney either supersedes the President, or is actually calling his own shots. For example, he refers to himself as a top man twice in the same sentence (“Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of the Senate, the presiding officer”). At another point, he points out the most important criteria in a Vice-President is “somebody who could take over.”

Also, he consistently refers to White House policy and decisions, not so much as Bush’s decisions, but decisions and policies “we” have executed. Most revealingly, there is one point — referring to the decision to go to war — where he actually drops the “we” and speaks as if the decision were his alone. He says:

“What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action.” (Italics mine.)

There was also one other speech act worth mentioning. Of course, it might have just been a slip, but it also might have been a Freudian slip. When discussing tax policy, Cheney meant to say that he and the President have a fundamental difference with Kerry-Edwards. Instead, what he said was: “(T)here’s a fundamental philosophical difference here between the president and myself.”

In considering this data, what I’m thinking is that the guy who lost the Vice-Presidential debate Tuesday night was actually George Bush. On the Democratic side, Kerry and Edwards have both demonstrated they belong in the big leagues. On the Republican side, however, you have a President who’s stumbling, and a heavyweight second-in-command who seems to be crowding him out.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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