Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards faced off Tuesday night in the only vice presidential debate, trading pointed and barbed criticism of not only their presidential tickets but also their own professional backgrounds.
Just as it had in the first presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, Iraq dominated much of the early part of the debate. But unlike the meeting between the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger, the vice presidential face-off included discussion of gay marriage, the economy, health care and education.
Cheney said that U.S. military action in Iraq was "exactly the right thing to do" and, if given the chance, the Bush administration would do it again if needed.
"The world is far safer today because Saddam Hussein (search) is in jail, his government's no longer in power," Cheney said. "The effort we mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."
Cheney's first question was to describe why the Bush administration chose to go into Iraq as the next battleground in the War on Terror (search). Immediately after his answer, Edwards accused Cheney of misleading American voters.
"Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people," Edwards countered. "The reality: You and George Bush continue to tell the American people to say things are going well in Iraq ... [but] they see it on their television every single day."
Edwards added that more American troops died in Iraq in September than in August and more in August than in July.
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Cheers went up in the auditorium as the two men took the stage. They then spent several minutes scribbling notes in silence before moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS welcomed the audience.
In the debate, which was held at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, Cheney and Edwards appeared in a Sunday talk show-style setting to answer a wide variety of questions that included issues like the War on Terror, the war in Iraq, the economy, jobs and health care.
Both Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards camps had their rapid response spinsters in what's known as "Spin Alley" down cold during the showdown. The Kerry-Edwards campaign referred to their responses as "Reality," while the Republican corner called theirs "Breaking Debate Fact."
Sparring on Iraq, Afghanistan
Edwards and Cheney fought pointedly on just who's "distorting" the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Edwards argued that the United States is shouldering 90 percent of the troop burden in Iraq and has spent $200 billion there.
Cheney shot back, saying the United States is only providing 50 percent of the troops and that Iraqi and allied troops make up the other 50 percent. He also took issue with the $200 billion figure, saying that number includes cash that hasn't been spent yet for that country next year.
"It wasn't $200 billion, but you probably weren't there to vote for that," Cheney said, taking a swipe at Edwards, who along with John Kerry has been criticized by Republicans for missing so many Senate votes. "Your facts are just wrong."
Edwards was asked about the "global test" Kerry said he would make sure the United States passed when going after terrorists. Kerry spoke of the global test during last week's first debate against President Bush.
"What is a global test if it's not a global veto?" Ifill asked Edwards of the term the Bush campaign pounced on, saying if Bush is re-elected to the White House, he would never ask for a permission slip from other countries to protect America.
Edwards earlier during the debate said: "What John Kerry said was clear as day to anybody who was listening: He said we will find terrorists wherever they are and we will kill them… He defended this country as a young man, he will defend this country as president of the United States."
In response to Ifill's question, Edwards said a "global test" means a Kerry-Edwards administration would tell other countries "the truth."
"Here's what it means. It means that Saddam Hussein needed to be confronted. John Kerry and I have consistently said that. That's why we voted for the resolution. But it also means it needed to be done the right way," including giving weapons inspectors more time to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and to not "take our eye off the ball" and continue to go after Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden instead of Saddam.
Edwards also said America's credibility is of utmost importance. "It is critical that we be credible … [countries] need to know that the credibility of the United States is always good because they will not follow us if they don't know that," Edwards said. "We will not outsource our responsibility to keep this country safe."
Cheney responded, saying credibility is exactly what Kerry and Edwards lack.
"You're not credible on Iraq because of the enormous inconsistencies John Kerry and you have cited time after time after time in the political campaign… There's no indication at all that John Kerry has the conviction to carry through in the War on Terror," the vice president said.
Edwards also criticized the administration for letting bin Laden get away. While agreeing that invading Afghanistan was the right thing to do, Edwards contended that the U.S. military had the terrorist leader cornered in the Afghan hills of Tora Bora at one point but missed its chance to capture him.
"[The administration] gave the responsibility of capturing… Usama bin Laden to Afghan warlords who, just a few weeks before, had been working with Usama bin Laden,” Edwards said. "Our point in this is not complicated: We were attacked by Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden."
Cheney responded to charges the administration blinked by saying, "We've never let up on Usama bin Laden from day one," and noted that thousands of Al Qaeda leaders and members have either been killed or captured.
If elected to a second term, he added, "We'll continue to very aggressively pursue him, and I'm confident eventually we'll get him."
Edwards went after Cheney for suggesting a connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and Saddam Hussein, especially after various corners like the Sept. 11 commission and Secretary of State Colin Powell have denied a direct link. But Cheney called his challenger's claim a distortion of his remarks.
"The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there's clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror," Cheney said. "And the point is that that's the place where you're most likely to see the terrorists come together with weapons of mass destruction, the deadly technologies that Saddam Hussein had developed and used over the years."
Cheney added that Kerry and Edwards aren't "prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror" and that "they've got a very limited view about how to use U.S. military forces to defend America."
Pulling Out the Big Guns
As expected, Edwards went after Cheney and his ties to Halliburton, the energy services company that is providing logistical and backup assistance to U.S. troops in Iraq.
He said that under Cheney's watch as CEO of Halliburton, the company was defying sanctions the U.S. had imposed against doing business with Iran. That behavior has led to an investigation of the company for allegedly bribing foreign officials, Edwards said, adding that Halliburton also got a $7.5 billion no-bid contract for Iraq.
The facts are that Halliburton did business with "sworn enemies of the United States," Edwards said.
Cheney said that the allegations are false and directed voters to read the truth about Halliburton at FactCheck.com; although he probably meant FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania that independently evaluates politicians' claims. Ironically, FactCheck.com forwards visitors to the Web site of left-leaning billionaire and Bush administration critic George Soros. Cheney said the Halliburton issue is nothing more than a "smokescreen" by the Kerry-Edwards campaign that is "repeatedly trying to confuse the voters and raise questions, but there's no substance to the charges."
He also slammed Edwards' tenure as a lawmaker and said the Halliburton issue was only being brought up to distract from inconsistencies in the two Democrats' records.
"Senator, you have a record in the Senate that is not very distinguished," said Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate and said he's present for floor sessions most Tuesdays. Turning toward his opponent, Cheney added that Edwards has missed votes on so many issues that "the first time I ever met you was when I walked on the stage tonight."
After the debate, the Bush campaign acknowledged that Cheney erred when he said it was the first time the two met. Elizabeth Edwards approached the vice president after the debate and noted that Cheney and her husband had met at a prayer breakfast a year earlier. Cheney responded, "Oh yes, you're right."
Cheney noted that some from Edwards' home area have dubbed the North Carolina lawmaker as "Senator Gone."
Edwards also charged the Bush administration with being "not entirely absent but mostly absent" from the peace process regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the Domestic Front
Asked how a Kerry administration can cut the federal deficit in half and not raise taxes, Edwards noted that what was supposed to be a $5 trillion projected surplus has turned into a $3 trillion projected deficit under a Bush-Cheney White House, "and there's no end in sight."
"John Kerry and I believe we have a moral responsibility not to leave trillions of dollars in debt to our children and our grandchildren," Edwards said, vowing that if elected, he and Kerry would roll back tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year, keep tax cuts in place for income earners below that level and give more cuts to people to pay for child care, college tuition and similar expenses.
"We can't eliminate the deficit... we're in too deep a hole but we can cut it in half," Edwards said.
Cheney said the "Kerry record on taxes is one basically of voting for a series of tax increases" during his term in the Senate and that, if re-elected, he and Bush would practice "fiscal restraint" that would drive the deficit back by 50 percent over the next five years.
He added that the president on Monday signed into law an extension of three tax cuts that benefit the middle class and noted that neither Edwards nor Kerry were present when the Senate voted recently to approve the extension.
The issue of gay marriage has also proved a controversial one in this campaign. Cheney, who has a gay daughter, was reminded by Ifill that, during a vice presidential debate four years ago, he said that freedom is for everybody. Given that statement, Ifill asked Cheney if gay people should be permitted to marry. The Bush administration has said it supports marriage between a man and a woman and the president backed a constitutional amendment that would prevent gay marriage.
"Freedom is for everybody," Cheney said, but that doesn't mean government should sanction gay marriage. "Traditionally, that's been an issue for the states... that would be my preference."
He also restated that he support's Bush stance on the issue. "He sets policy for this administration and I support the president," Cheney added.
Kerry and Edwards do support the states deciding whether to sanction same-sex marriage and oppose a constitutional amendment.
"I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and so does John Kerry. I also believe there should be partnership benefits [for a committed couple], but we should not use the Constitution to divide this country," Edwards said.
He added that he did not believe that one state should be forced to recognize the marriage of a gay couple sanctioned in another state. This has been a sticking point on the judicial bench because the "Full Faith and Credit" clause of the Constitution that requires states to honor contracts made in other states.
Edwards started his response by saying he respected the fact that the Cheneys have spoken publicly about this issue within their family and he has no doubt that the vice president and his wife love their daughter. Cheney thanked Edwards for his kind words and did not say anything further on the matter.
The Bush-Cheney camp also has criticized Edwards for being part of the problem. The campaign argues that trial lawyers are costing the country's medical system. Too much litigation, it says, has caused medical liability insurance to skyrocket and has led to much-needed reform of the system.
Cheney said economic damages awarded in medical-liability lawsuits should be capped, and the awards earned by trial attorneys should be limited. He noted that the House has passed a medical-liability reform bill but it's being blocked in the Senate; he pointed out that Edwards has voted against such a measure 10 times.
Edwards said the GOP's attacks on trial lawyers don't have much at all to do with medical liability but agreed litigation is clogging the system.
"We want to put more responsibility on the lawyers to require, before a case, malpractice, which the vice president just spoke about, have the case reviewed by independent experts to determine if the case is serious and meritorious before it can be filed; hold the lawyers responsible for that, certify that and hold the lawyer financially responsible if they don't do it; have a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule so that a lawyer who files three of these cases without meeting this requirement loses their right to file these cases," Edwards said.
Edwards said he's qualified to serve in the White House because he and Kerry would "tell the truth" and said he has a "very clear idea of what has to be done to keep this country safe," including killing terrorists wherever they may hide and working to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
More than once, Edwards said "a long resume does not equal good judgment."
He added that a Kerry administration would also boost the U.S. military by 40,000 and double the number of Special Forces hunting terrorists.
But, Cheney said Bush is the only candidate who can effectively lead this country in the War on Terror.
"I clearly believe George W. Bush will be a better commander in chief — he's done it for four years," Cheney said, adding that Bush has the conviction, vision and determination to win that global war.
"Those special qualities are vital in a commander in chief and I think the president has them and I'm not at all convinced his opponent does," the vice president added.
Ifill addressed the so-called "flip-flop" issue. The GOP has charged Kerry for changing his views on the war in Iraq and the War on Terror, among other things. Democrats, on the other hand, have said Bush has been inconsistent with his support — at first opposing the independent commission probing the Sept. 11 attacks and the Department of Homeland Security and then supporting them.
"They should know a lot about flip-flops, they've seen a lot in their administration," Edwards said. "Over and over, this administration has said one thing and done another."
Cheney had his own quip in response to that: "I can think of a lot of words to describe Senator Kerry's position on Iraq; ‘consistent' is not one of them."
In closing, Edwards said four more years of a Bush-Cheney White House will just be "more of the same" that has caused the "bright light of America" to flicker. If elected, Edwards vowed, he and Kerry would fight for a strong middle class and "fix this mess in Iraq."
"The truth is, every four years you get to decide... John Kerry and I are asking you to give us the power to fight for you, to fight for that dream in America that I saw as a young man," Edwards said.
Cheney pointed out that under Bush's watch, taxes have been cut, 1.7 million jobs have been added within the past year and "we won't be happy until every American who wants to work can find a job." He also vowed another four years would bring better access to medical care and good schools and the preservation of Social Security.
In regards to keeping weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists' hands, Cheney closed by saying: "That threat and the president's leadership needed to deal with it places a special responsibility on all of you on Nov. 2 in deciding who will be your commander in chief."
Bush, he added, offers the "only viable option."
With the only vice presidential debate complete, Kerry and Bush meet for two more debates before Election Day. The first of those meetings is on Friday in St. Louis, Mo., the other is Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz.