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There were plenty of distortions and contrasting views of reality presented by Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney in the debate on Tuesday night, but if you were looking for a blockbuster lie, there was one of those too. Edwards took pains to point out to the audience that Cheney had made repeated statements connecting Iraq with al Qaeda, at times going off the topic of the question to do so. It took Cheney a while to respond to that charge, but he did, finally – with a lie.
"I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11," Cheney said.
Here's what the vice president told NPR's Morning Edition in January: "I think there's overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government."
Beyond that flat-out lie, there was condescension. Cheney repeatedly adopted the tone of a strict father or disapproving teacher: "You're never going to build a coalition with that kind of attitude;" "You have one of the worst attendance records in the Senate;" and "You probably weren't there to vote for that." Moderator Gwen Ifill supported that frame with questions suggesting that Edwards had the least government experience for a vice-presidential candidate in decades. Her question pushed this envelope with "French and German officials have both said they have no intention, even if John Kerry is elected, of sending any troops into Iraq for any peacekeeping effort. Does that make your effort or your plan to internationalize this effort seem kind of naive?"
Edwards countered with the right emphasis – essentially suggesting that experience was no substitute for good judgment, echoing John Kerry's line from last week's presidential debate that one can "be certain and be wrong." Edwards quoted Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, who said that not enough soldiers had been brought in to do the job and that we invaded without a plan. Edwards pointed out that Republican Sens. John McCain, Dick Lugar, and Chuck Hagel had described Iraq as a mess.
Cheney did little to defend these accusations, perhaps because they are indefensible. Instead, he stayed "on message": "We did exactly the right thing. ... 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."
Edwards hammered away at the lack of international support for the U.S. war on Iraq, the lack of a real coalition and the consequence of unilateralism: "You know, we've taken 90 percent of the coalition causalities. American taxpayers have borne 90 percent of the costs of the effort in Iraq."
Cheney's response was to twist Edwards' statements and suggest that Edwards was somehow "demeaning" the Iraqis. "Gwen, the 90 percent figure is just dead wrong," Cheney began, then proceeding to use some fuzzy math of his own. "When you include the Iraqi security forces that have suffered casualties, as well as the allies, they've taken almost 50 percent of the casualties in operations in Iraq, which leaves the U.S. with 50 percent, not 90 percent. ..." Then, slipping into the self-righteous tone, he tried to lecture Edwards, saying the Iraqis are "increasingly the ones out there putting their necks on the line to take back their country from the terrorists and the old regime elements that are still left. They're doing a superb job. And for you to demean their sacrifices. ..."
Edwards didn't let up, pointing out later that President Bush and Cheney had been peddling another fiction to the American public – that elections in Iraq were on schedule: "Right now, the United Nations, which is responsible for the elections in January, has about 35 people there. Now, that's compared with a much smaller country like East Timor, where they had over 200 people on the ground. You need more than 35 people to hold an election in Cleveland, much less in Iraq. "
On the topic of Afghanistan, Cheney talked of "amazing" progress being made. "We're four days away from a democratic election, the first one in history in Afghanistan," he boasted. "We've got 10 million voters who have registered to vote, nearly half of them women. We've made enormous progress in Afghanistan, in exactly the right direction." Setting aside the highly questionable number of 10 million registered voters, Edwards challenged the narrative of a smooth transition to democracy in Afghanistan. "Here's what's actually happened in Afghanistan, regardless of this rosy scenario that they paint on Afghanistan, just like they do with Iraq," Edwards said, "What's actually happened is they're now providing 75 percent of the world's opium," he said, adding that soaring opium production was financing terrorist activity and that warlords are in control of large parts of the country.
Without citing any specifics, Cheney accused John Kerry of having been "on the wrong side of defense issues" in the Senate for more than 20 years. "In 1984, when he ran for the Senate, he opposed, or called for the elimination of a great many major weapons systems that were crucial to winning the Cold War and are important today to our overall forces." Edwards fired right back, pointing out Cheney's record. "This vice president, when he was secretary of defense, cut over 80 weapons systems, including the very ones he's criticizing John Kerry for voting against. These are weapons systems, a big chunk of which the vice president himself suggested we get rid of after the Cold War."
And then Edwards went for the jugular, questioning Cheney's allegiance to the nation and implying that Cheney was more businessman than statesman. He brought up Cheney's business dealings as CEO of Halliburton in the late '90s when the company had contractual relations with Libya and Iran and how later the company reportedly ripped off the American taxpayers. "The facts are the vice president's company that he was CEO of, that did business with sworn enemies of the United States, paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information, [and is] under investigation for bribing foreign officials," Edwards said. "The same company that got a $7.5 billion no-bid contract, the rule is that part of their money is supposed to be withheld when they're under investigation, as they are now, for having overcharged the American taxpayer, but they're getting every dime of their money."
On other topics, Ifill asked Cheney about the government's role in helping to end the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., in particular among African American women who, she pointed out, are "13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts." First, Cheney responded by mentioning the paltry sum of $15 million the Bush administration has spent on international efforts to stop AIDS, including in Africa and the Third World. Then he acknowledged his own ignorance regarding the domestic AIDS crisis: "I have not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women."
When the topic turned to gay marriage, Edwards ran with Bush's approach by validating Cheney's family and his lesbian daughter (this had the added effect of pointing out, in a perhaps back-handed way, that Edwards' own family was all heterosexual, that it is the anti-gay Republicans who have gays in their midst).
Aside from policy issues. both Edwards and Cheney had sharply contrasting styles and demeanor. Cheney was generally cold, playing the strict father role, trying repeatedly to come across as mature and resolute by adopting a condescending tone towards Edwards. By contrast, Edwards maintained a lighter, charming presence that (despite the copious blinking) came across as genuine.
Political consultant Steve Cobble says that given Edwards' newcomer status, he had a lot to lose, but he more than held his own against a far more experienced – and meaner – opponent. "And we should remember that four years ago, Dick Cheney defeated Joe Lieberman in that vice presidential debate, a surprise showing that might have been just enough to win the election," Cobble added.
In the final analysis, Cheney's message was a rather weak one – that experience mattered. It was a weak message because Edwards had a message that punched a hole through the advantage-of-experience line: That Bush and Cheney were too stubborn to learn from their mistakes and that they were not shooting straight with the American people (or the rest of the world, for that matter), especially about the state of affairs in Iraq. And, of course, it didn't help when Cheney lied about the Iraq and 9/11 connection.