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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Cheney, Edwards dodge Ifill’s on-target jabs

Veep debate by the numbers but not by the book

By Leigh E. Rich

Junior Sen. John Edwards held his own Tuesday night at Case Western Reserve University as he went head-to-head with Vice President Dick Cheney in the only debate for second-in-command.

Cheney, known for his bulldog style and his lengthy resume in politics, and North Carolina legislator Edwards fielded 90 minutes of questions from PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill.

And there was no doubt the gloves were off—especially with Ifill’s simultaneously pointed and on-point questions—making the first presidential debate less than a week earlier look stiff and rote by comparison.

Ifill stepped into the ring with the first question, aimed at Vice President Cheney, in which she quoted Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Secretary of Homeland Security Donald Rumsfeld. Bremer maintained in a speech the day before the debate that the United States never had enough troops on the ground in Iraq, and Rumsfeld recently provided Cheney with a report stating a lack of hard evidence connecting al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

Cheney responded with talk about “the broader context of the global war on terror,” a theme he continued throughout the debate that covered both foreign and domestic policy.

With respect to Iraq, Cheney said, the “effort that we’ve mounted … focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destructions.”

Later, the vice president also drew connections between Hussein and Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel.

Edwards held nothing back in his response, boldly telling the veep, “Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. … There are Republican leaders … who have said Iraq is a mess and it’s getting worse … because of the incompetence of the administration.

“What Paul Bremer said yesterday,” Edwards continued, “is that they didn’t have enough troops to secure the country. They also didn’t have a plan to win the peace. They also didn’t put the alliances together to make this successful.”

Ifill took swings at the Kerry-Edwards ticket as well on the issue of Iraq, asking the vice-presidential candidate how the Democratic team would internationalize the effort when “French and German officials have both said they have no intention … of sending any troops into Iraq.”

While Edwards claimed “the president and the vice president have not done the work to build the coalition that we need,” Cheney said his opponents “don’t have a plan. Basically, it’s an echo,” and added that “John Kerry referred to our allies as a coalition of the coerced and the bribed. … You’re never going to add to the coalition with that kind of attitude.”

Instead, Cheney cited interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as the United States’ “most important ally in the war on terror” and took aim at Edwards’ calculations concerning the cost of the war in Iraq and the number of American casualties.

Comparing the current war with “the first Gulf War that cost the American people $5 billion” and maintaining President Bush and Cheney handled the problem of Saddam Hussein the wrong way, Edwards said America has “taken 90 percent of the coalition casualties” and “American taxpayers have borne 90 percent of the costs of the effort in Iraq. … We’re at $200 billion and counting.”

Cheney called the senator “dead wrong” and retorted with figures of his own: “$120 billion is, in fact, what has been allocated to Iraq. The rest of it’s for Afghanistan and the global war on terror.”

The vice president then whittled that number even further, stating that the allies have agreed to forgive some of Iraq’s debts and provide $14 billion in direct aid.

Later, however, Edwards bumped the number back up. “And regardless of what the vice president says, we’re at $200 billion and counting.”

Repeating a common phrase from the Republican camp that Democrats Kerry and Edwards have shifted with the political winds on the issue of Iraq—particularly over the $87 billion in funding for military operations—Cheney also accused his opponent of lacking conviction and vacillating in his support for the war.

“I couldn’t figure out why that happened initially. And then I looked and figured out that what was happening was Howard Dean was making major progress in the Democratic primaries, running away with the primaries based on an anti-war record. So they, in effect, decided they would cast an anti-war vote and they voted against the troops.

“Now if they couldn’t stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented,” Cheney asked, “how can we expect them to stand up to al-Qaida?”

In his defense, Edwards ticked off several pro-defense examples from Kerry’s senatorial record and raised the issue of Halliburton, “the vice president’s former company.”

“On the $87 billion, it was clear at the time of that vote that (Bush and Cheney) had no plan to win the peace. We’re seeing the consequences of that every day on the ground right now. … We also thought it was wrong to have a $20 billion fund out of which $7.5 billion was going to go to a no-bid contract for Halliburton.”

Cheney deemed the attacks on his connections with Halliburton as nothing more than a “smokescreen … to try to confuse the voters and to raise questions,” but Edwards resisted the categorization of his arguments as pure politics.

“These are the facts,” Edwards said. “The facts are the vice president’s company that he was CEO of … did business with sworn enemies of the United States (and) paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information. It’s under investigation for bribing foreign officials.

“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.”

“They know the charges are false,” Cheney said for his part.

But the question of Halliburton would be raised one more time during the debate, after the vice president accused Edwards while “in private practice in law and as a senator, you had the advantage of a special tax loophole, (the) Subchapter S corporation, which you set up so you could avoid paying $600,000 in Medicare taxes.”

“I have paid all the taxes that I owe,” Edwards retorted and then added, “When the vice president was CEO of Halliburton, they took advantage of every offshore loophole available. They had multiple offshore companies that were avoiding taxes.”

Taxes became, like the war in Iraq, a subject that dominated much of the debate, and both Cheney and Edwards cited their running mate’s records as evidence of empathy for the American taxpayer.

When Ifill asked Edwards how Kerry can guarantee that he “absolutely will not raise taxes on anyone … who earns under $200,000 a year … and also cut the deficit in half,” the candidate said that “what we’re going to do is roll back tax cuts … for people who make over $200,000 a year. We will do that. We want to keep the tax cuts that are in place for people who make less than $200,000 a year and give additional tax cuts to those middle-class families, tax cuts for health care, tax cuts to help families pay for their college tuition, tax cuts for child care. … We also want to get rid of some of the bureaucratic spending in Washington.”

Cheney came back with criticisms of Sen. Kerry’s record.

“Gwen, the Kerry record on taxes is one basically of voting for a large number of tax increases—98 times in the United States Senate,” he said. “There’s a fundamental philosophical difference here between the president and myself, who believe that we ought to let the American people keep more of what they earn and we ought to empower them to have more control over their own lives. I think the Kerry-Edwards approach basically is to raise taxes and to give government more control over the lives of individual citizens.”

Citing his own statistics, Edwards defended his colleague. “John Kerry, Mr. Vice President, has voted or co-sponsored over 600 times tax cuts for the American people—over 600 times.

“And there is a philosophical difference between us and them,” he admitted. “We are for more tax cuts for the middle class than they … have been for the last four years. But we are not for more tax cuts for multimillionaires. They are.”

Candidates weigh in on the home front

The two candidates were perhaps less persuasive in their arguments as Ifill moved from foreign policy to more domestic issues, such as job creation and health care.

Engaging in the debate from the Cleveland, Ohio, university, Ifill asked the vice president what his administration would do to better the lives of people living in places such as Cleveland, which “the Census Bureau ranked … as the biggest poor city in the country” with a “31 percent jobless rate.”

Cheney’s answer focused almost solely on the successes of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, legislation passed in 2001 that establishes higher educational standards and holds schools accountable for student performance.

Edwards called the vice president on answering a question about poverty and jobs with talk of education and then cited job-loss figures during the past four years: “1.6 million private sector jobs have been lost, 2.7 million manufacturing jobs have been lost. And it’s had real consequences in places like Cleveland.”

But Edwards also had little to say about how to solve the job crunch. “We want to get rid of tax cuts for companies sending jobs overseas. We want to balance this budget, get back to fiscal responsibility. And we want to invest in the creative, innovative jobs of the future.”

And neither vice-presidential candidate was able to directly answer Ifill’s question about AIDS in the United States and the reality that “black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts.”

Cheney admitted, “I have not heard those numbers with respect to African- American women. I was not aware that it was—that they’re in epidemic there, because we have made progress in terms of the overall rate of AIDS infection … primarily through a combination of education and public awareness as well as the development, as a result of research, of drugs that allow people to live longer lives even though they are infected. Obviously, we need to do more of that.”

Edwards mostly spoke to the AIDS crises in Africa and Russia, saying that he and Kerry would double the current administration’s $15 billion in international AIDS relief. The senator then broached the rising numbers of Americans without health insurance.

Ifill seemed to acquiesce to the candidates’ vague answers and merely said, “OK, we’ll move on.”

She didn’t relent from asking incisive questions, however, and raised the subjects of Edwards’ minimal governmental experience and whether there’s anything “wrong with a little flip-flop every now and then.”

Edwards spoke briefly about his international travels as part of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee and promised he and Kerry would “find terrorists where they are and stop them and kill them before they do harm to us” as well as “tell the American people the truth.”

Even Cheney didn’t seem to want to discuss whether Edwards is qualified for the second-in-command position, explaining that “picking a vice president probably varies from president to president. Different presidents approach it in different ways.”

For his part, he pledged that he doesn’t have “any further political aspirations myself. And I think that’s been an advantage.”

Dual charges of ‘flip-flops’

As for the ad nauseam mantra in this election season about the Democratic ticket’s “flip-flopping,” both Edwards and Cheney claimed their team has been “consistent” and rattled off accusations about how the other has dithered.

“They should know something about flip-flops,” Edwards said of Bush and Cheney. “They’ve seen a lot of it during their administration. They were first against the 9/11 Commission, then they were for it. … They were against the Department of Homeland Security, then they were for it. They said they were going to put $2 trillion of the surplus when they came into office aside to protect Social Security. Then they changed their minds. They said that they supported the troops, and then, while our troops were on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, they went to the Congress and lobbied to have their combat pay cut.

“They said that they were going to do something about health care in this country. And they’ve done something: They’ve made it worse. They said that they were going to fund their No Child Left Behind, (which is) $27 billion short today. … This president said … I’m for a national patient’s bill of rights. … We don’t have a patient’s bill of rights because of one man today, the president of the United States. They’ve gone back and forth.”

“Well, Gwen,” Cheney rejoined, “I can think of a lot of words to describe Senator Kerry’s position on Iraq. ‘Consistent’ is not one of them.

“I think if you look at the record from voting for sending the troops; then voting against the resources they needed when they got there; then saying I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it; saying in response to a question knowing everything I know now, yes, I would have cast exactly the same vote and then shortly after that saying wrong war, wrong place, wrong time—consistency doesn’t come to mind as I consider that record.”

There was also some consistency lacking in keeping to the rules Ifill set forth at the beginning of the debate—particularly those stipulating that the “candidates may not direct questions at one another” and members of the audience “have been instructed to remain silent.”

As Cheney responded to Edwards’ tallies about the cost of the war and the number of American casualties, the two engaged in a brief tête-à-tête about whether Kerry and Edwards have “demean(ed) the sacrifices” and contributions of Iraqi allies.

The audience also broke their vow of silence, laughing as Ifill reprimanded Cheney for suggesting he needed more than 30 seconds to rebut a question and when the vice president hesitated to answer the query about whether Edwards, as a trial lawyer, is “partly to blame for higher medical costs” in America.

Laughter also ensued as Edwards and Cheney volleyed over who used a question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to challenge each other’s records on unrelated topics.

At times, Ifill herself struggled to keep track of which candidate was to receive the next question, apologizing at one point for giving Edwards an extra 15 seconds. She also incorrectly called attention to the senator for mentioning John Kerry’s name twice in his answer to the question: “Without mentioning them by name at all, explain to us why you are different from your opponent.”

Ifill, however, did not interrupt Cheney’s answer as he directly referred to “John Edwards” and “Senator Edwards.”

And, of course, on Wednesday there were differing stories about who won the vice-presidential debate, with post-debate polls showing both contenders racking up points as each attacked the other’s political records and conduct as professionals in the private sector.

An ABC News poll, based on telephone calls Tuesday night to a random sample of 509 registered voters, found 43 percent of viewers calling the debate in favor of Cheney, 35 percent in favor of Edwards, and 19 percent who felt it was a tie.

A CBS News poll, based on a sample of 178 “uncommitted voters,” showed Edwards in the lead with 41 percent and Cheney with 28 percent. The remaining 31percent thought the two candidates tied.

Well before the debate began, however, Nightline predicted in its daily e-mail that, though “the polls show interest in tonight’s debate much higher than usual … (if) there’s no apparent or obvious winner, then the spin begins in earnest.

“Regardless, of course, both sides will be claiming victory.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, October 8). Cheney and Edwards dodge and weave Ifill’s on-target jabs. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 8, 10.

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