Ballot Box

Runners Advance

Edwards keeps the Democrats’ rally going.

Edwards 1, Cheney 0

Now are you sorry you didn’t nominate this guy for president?

That’s what I wanted to ask Democrats as I watched John Edwards knock Dick Cheney around the ring tonight. If the Iowa caucuses had been held two days later, Edwards might have beaten John Kerry there and won the nomination. Democrats might have been spared months of caveat-riddled circumlocutions that helped sour swing voters on their presidential nominee. We might have heard a clear Democratic message.

Well, at least we heard it tonight.

Cheney and Edwards apparently went into this debate with different theories of what it was for. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked them to discuss their differences, Cheney said “the most important consideration in picking a vice president” was having “somebody who could take over.” Edwards answered the same question by outlining Kerry’s platform, virtues, and accomplishments. Cheney seemed to think most viewers were tuning in to judge the vice presidential nominees. Edwards seemed to think they were tuning in to hear about the presidential nominees.

If Cheney guessed right on that question, he probably won. But if he guessed wrong—and I suspect he did—Edwards kicked his expletive. If you watched this debate as an uninformed voter, you heard an avalanche of reasons to vote for Kerry. You heard 23 times that Kerry has a “plan” for some big problem or that Bush doesn’t. You heard 10 references to Halliburton, with multiple allegations of bribes, no-bid contracts, and overcharges. You heard 13 associations of Bush with drug or insurance companies. You heard four attacks on him for outsourcing. You heard again and again that he opposed the 9/11 commission and the Department of Homeland Security, that he “diverted” resources from the fight against al-Qaida to the invasion of Iraq, and that while our troops “were on the ground fighting, [the administration] lobbied the Congress to cut their combat pay.” You heard that Kerry served in Vietnam and would “double the special forces.” You heard that Bush is coddling the Saudis, that Cheney “cut over 80 weapons systems,” and that the administration has no air-cargo screening or unified terrorist watch list.

As the debate turned to domestic policy, you heard that we’ve lost 1.6 million net jobs and 2.7 million net manufacturing jobs under Bush. You heard that he’s the first president in 70 years to lose jobs. You heard that 4 million more people live in poverty, and 5 million have lost their health insurance. You heard that the average annual premium has risen by $3,500. You heard that we’ve gone from a $5 trillion surplus to a $3 trillion debt. You heard that a multimillionaire sitting by his swimming pool pays a lower tax rate than a soldier in Iraq. You heard that Bush has underfunded No Child Left Behind by $27 billion. You heard that Kerry, unlike Bush, would let the government negotiate “to get discounts for seniors” and would let “prescription drugs into this country from Canada.” You heard that at home and abroad, Bush offers “four more years of the same.”

Most Democrats, including Kerry, duck and cover when Republicans bring up values. Not Edwards. He knows the language and loves to turn it against the GOP. The word “moral” was used twice in this debate. The word “value” was used three times. All five references came from Edwards. He denounced the “moral” crime of piling debt on our grandchildren. He called the African AIDS epidemic and the Sudan genocide “huge moral issues.” When Ifill asked him about gay marriage, he changed the subject to taxes. “We don’t just value wealth, which they do,” said Edwards. “We value work in this country. And it is a fundamental value difference between them and us.”

Edwards applied the same jujitsu elsewhere. He framed his vote against the $87 billion Iraq appropriation as a vote against a $7.5 billion “no-bid contract for Halliburton.” When Cheney faulted Kerry’s inconsistency, Edwards argued that Kerry, unlike Bush, had been “consistent from the beginning that we must stay focused on the people who attacked us.” When Cheney accused Kerry of weakening America by subjecting its foreign policy decisions to the approval of allies, Edwards replied that Bush, by refusing to persuade allies, was leaving Americans to bear the war’s costs and casualties.

My favorite moment came when Cheney impugned Edwards’ voting record. Edwards replied that Cheney had voted against Head Start, Meals on Wheels, the Department of Education, and the Martin Luther King holiday. It was such a devastating flurry of kidney punches, so blandly and shamelessly delivered, that my wife and I burst into sobs of weeping laughter. At the skill or the gall, I’m not sure which.

The charge that did the most damage was the one Edwards leveled at the outset: that Bush and Cheney aren’t telling the truth about prewar and postwar Iraq. Edwards listed the evidence contradicting Cheney’s assurances about the current situation: the monthly escalation of American casualties, criticism of the administration’s incompetence by Republican senators, and a critique issued Monday by Bush’s former Iraq administrator. Then he listed the evidence contradicting Cheney’s associations of the Iraq war with 9/11: testimony from Secretary of State Powell and reports from the 9/11 commission and the CIA.

To this indictment, Edwards added two others. In Afghanistan, he blamed Bush for letting Osama Bin Laden escape Tora Bora to strike again. In Iran, he accused Cheney of opposing sanctions against “sworn enemies of the United States”—and an emerging nuclear threat—because Halliburton had business there. Together, the charges painted a picture of an administration that spent its ammunition on the wrong target, allowing more serious threats to flourish.

Edwards’ assault took Cheney completely off his game. Cheney spent the first 15 minutes defending the administration, unable to deliver his prepared attacks on Kerry. He lost his cool and started to snap at Edwards, saying, “You probably weren’t there to vote for that,” and “You’ve got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate.” Though Edwards was delivering the harsher blows, Cheney looked meaner. But the most important effect of Edwards’ onslaught was to provoke three gaffes from the vice president.

One was minor but conspicuous. “I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer,” Cheney told the younger man, scolding him for poor attendance. “I’m up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they’re in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.” It took the Kerry campaign less than two hours to send reporters a picture of Cheney standing next to Edwards three years ago. In 2000, the Bush-Cheney campaign and the press roasted Al Gore for claiming in a debate that he had been with another public official (James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency) when in fact he hadn’t. Now Cheney has committed the same offense in reverse.

The other gaffes were more serious. “I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11,” Cheney said in response to Edwards’ initial salvo. Later, Cheney tried to deflect a CIA report, which, according to the New York Times, “says it is now not clear whether Mr. Hussein’s government harbored members of a group led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” Cheney insisted, “A CIA spokesman was quoted in that story as saying they had not yet reached the bottom line, and there is still debate.” On the first question, Cheney pitted himself against a long, videotaped record of him suggesting connections between Iraq and 9/11. On the second, he pitted himself against a clear trend of intelligence, of which further details are likely to be leaked or extracted as the public feud grows between Cheney and skeptics in intelligence agencies.

With the Republican Convention extending into September, never has a trailing ticket had so little time to fight its way back into the race. Democrats desperately needed to regain and maintain control of the election agenda. Kerry had to knock Bush back on his heels in the first debate so he could broaden the discussion to domestic policy. Edwards had to do the same to Cheney, ideally generating new story lines about the administration’s difficulty with reality. It’s like a ninth-inning rally. Kerry got the lead-off hit. Edwards singled him to third. How will it end? Pass the popcorn.