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Cheney on Trial

October 6, 2004
By Dave Allsopp

Before the first Kerry/Bush debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer almost wet himself at the prospect of witnessing history in the making.

"A pivotal night in this presidential campaign, perhaps a decisive moment," he gushed. "A defining night. I think everybody agrees potentially. This certainly could be a defining night. Historians will be writing about this for many years to come."

Of course, after Kerry left Bush's smoking remains lying scattered across the stage, Blitzer changed his tune.

"Even if John Kerry decisively won the debate, we shouldn't jump to any conclusions, let alone on the final outcome on November 2," he announced.

And indeed, it took a few days before the mainstream media finally admitted, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that John Kerry was the winner. Of course, this duly allowed them to set up the Cheney/Edwards debate as the latest and greatest minty-fresh "defining moment."

"Debate assumes new importance," screamed the Washington Post in an above-the-fold front page headline on Monday. "Tomorrow's vice presidential debate has assumed critical importance, with Republicans depending on Vice President Cheney to halt the ticket's slide in momentum."

While the Post's exercise in hyperbole has been mostly disproven by post-debate spin, it is true that Dick Cheney entered last night's debate with two very important goals: first, he had to convince viewers that he was still the kindly old grandfather-figure they saw chatting with Joe Lieberman in 2000, and second, he needed to get the campaign back on track after George W. Bush's disastrous performance in Miami left Republicans reeling and on the defensive.

To get a bit of perspective on Cheney's mission, let's return for a moment to Campaign 2000.

In 2000, the vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman was widely regarded as a yawn-fest; the two experienced politicians were genial, tip-toed around one another, and agreed more than they disagreed on many positions. The debate focused almost entirely on domestic policies and the consequences of the giant budget surplus created under Bill Clinton.

But there were also character questions in 2000. Bush had counteracted many criticisms that he was too green for the job by repeatedly insisting that the team he was putting together would bring to the table the experience he lacked. Dick Cheney was Bush's number one go-to guy, and his performance in the 2000 debate convinced many that under his tutelage, George W. Bush would do okay.

The 2000 vice-presidential debate cast Cheney as a accomplished elder statesman, and his cool demeanor won the hearts of many who worried about Bush's inexperience.

"Sure, the governor of Texas is a bit of a doofus," thought America, "but how can we possibly go wrong with Cheney's capable hand guiding him?"

I think we all know the answer to that by now.

In the wake of September 11, a moribund economy, a dangerous war of choice in Iraq, and a thousand other disasters that have occured on this administration's watch, the vice president had his work cut out for him during Tuesday's debate.

No longer was he the genial, competent guiding light behind Bush's folksy-but-dim presidency - Cheney went into the debate as the chief architect of the disastrous Bush doctrine; as the man who insisted Saddam Hussein had reconstituted nuclear weapons; as the man who refused to reveal which energy executives created the Bush administration's energy policy; as the man who gave his former company free reign to plunder Iraq while his other corporate pals raked in the cash from military contracts; as the man who told Sen. Patrick Leahy "go fuck yourself" on the Senate floor.

And he wasn't just forced to defend a disastrous record. Cheney - who symbolizes the very essence of corrupt, corporate America - had to face Senator John Edwards, a man who has spent his life stopping those very corporations from shafting the little guy. You can bet Cheney would have preferred a rematch with Joe "I Yield" Lieberman.

John Edwards made his intentions perfectly clear from the very beginning of the debate; after thanking the moderator and the people of Ohio, the first words out of his mouth were, "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people." For Cheney, it was downhill from there.

Edwards hit the vice president early and hard, contrasting the administration's fantasy-land version of what is happening in Iraq with the reality of the situation there. And the more light he threw on the Bush administration, the more Cheney's famously short temper began to boil.

Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" has frequently joked that Sen. Edwards is John Kerry's "ward" - but if Edwards is Robin to Kerry's Batman, last night Dick Cheney was The Penguin. And you can be sure that Cheney would have given his right arm for a poisoned umbrella when John Edwards attacked his voting record.

"The vice president, I'm surprised to hear him talk about records," said Edwards. "When he was one of 435 members of the United States House, he was one of 10 to vote against Head Start, one of four to vote against banning plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors. He voted against the Department of Education. He voted against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors. He voted against a holiday for Martin Luther King. He voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. It's amazing to hear him criticize either my record or John Kerry's."

Ouch. Could Cheney defend the fact that he voted to keep Nelson Mandela in prison? He could not.

"Oh, I think his record speaks for itself. And frankly, it's not very distinguished," he lamely replied, ceding the rest of his 30 second rebuttal back to the moderator.

During the onslaught Cheney appeared to be restraining himself from leaping across the table and throttling John Edwards, and presumably it was this lack of self-control that caused him to commit the mother of all debate gaffes - telling obvious lies which were easily disproven by the opposition and the media.

Here are just a few of Cheney's screw-ups:

CHENEY'S LIE: "In my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. 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."

THE TRUTH: Cheney has met John Edwards several times, including at a prayer breakfast in 2001. In addition, Cheney has presided over the Senate's Tuesday sessions just twice in the past four years. In Cheney's absence, John Edwards has actually filled in as President of the Senate twice.

CHENEY'S LIE: "You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate."

THE TRUTH: John Edwards has an 84.8% voting record in the Senate. In his first four years his voting attendance record was 99.2%, 100%, 99.2%, and 100%.

CHENEY'S LIE: "The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11."

THE TRUTH: "He [Saddam Hussein] had long established ties with al Qaeda." - Dick Cheney, March 14 2004. "I think there's overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government" - Dick Cheney, January 22, 2004. "Well, what we now have that's developed since you and I last talked, Tim, of course, was that report that's been pretty well confirmed, that he [Mohammed Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April." - Dick Cheney, December 9, 2001.

If Cheney's first goal was to convince viewers that he was still the trustworthy, capable grandfather-figure from 2000, he failed, and failed dismally. But could he achieve his second objective: to spin hard enough to shift the momentum away from Kerry/Edwards and get the Bush campaign back on track?

Last week John Kerry cooly demonstrated that Bush is an empty suit who crumbles under the slightest pressure. On Tuesday Cheney was no such pushover, but John Edwards succeeded in forcing the administration further onto the defensive. Kerry showed America that the Great and Powerful Bush is nothing but an illusion, and Edwards showed America that the man behind the curtain ain't such hot stuff either.

To be sure, Tuesday's debate was much closer than last Thursday's presidential debate. Cheney certainly did not give up without a fight, and most of the post-debate spin concluded that the debate was a draw. But political pundits also agreed that the vice-presidential debate would not cause a shift in momentum from Kerry to Bush. In fact, CBS's scientific poll showed undecided viewers leaning towards John Edwards 41%-29%. Team Bush cannot claim this debate as a victory.

If anything, Dick Cheney's performance served only to highlight his boss's incompetence. Looking at the four men on the two tickets, it is now quite clear - if it wasn't blatantly obvious already - which man is the weakest link.

This Friday George W. Bush will have to perform out of his skin if he hopes to do better than his own vice president, let alone his challenger. And as the election closes in, and Americans begin to really focus on their choice this November, they will have to ask themselves two questions: whether it is sensible to re-elect George W. Bush when his knowledge of the issues most important to them seems so desperately shallow, and whether Dick Cheney can be trusted as the president's second-in-command.

We have two more debates to go before the first question can be fully answered. But on Tuesday night, at least, it became clear that the answer to the second question is a definitive "no."

Dave Allsopp, aka EarlG, is a co-founder and administrator of Democratic Underground.

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