Peter W. Schramm
October 1, 2004
The only debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards took place last night on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Since some of my best friends are Republicans I was able to get a ticket. So off I went, an hour up the road to Cleveland. The event took place at the Veale Center which, until recently, was a gym used exclusively for wrestling. That it no longer looked or felt like a gym to the few hundred assembled in the auditorium is a perfect reflection of what the American can-do attitude can accomplish: The place looked like it was built just for a vice-presidential debate.
Still, as far as I was concerned it was a wrestling match we were about to witness. The only question was would it be Greco-Roman or Freestyle. Both are recognized by the Olympics. More subtle differences aside, in Greco-Roman, wrestlers are permitted to hold only above the waist. In Freestyle, well, the method is more open-ended—below the belt is allowed. The two athletes—mismatched in weight and stature and experience—marched to their places and the fans discovered they were going to watch a match using Freestyle. The silver-tongued Southerner (is there one who isn’t?) versus the serious elder.
After Cheney explained that going into Iraq was exactly the right thing to do, Edwards came on strong: "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people." Throughout the hour and a half debate Edwards continued to repeat and emphasize that he thought Cheney was telling stretchers. Things can’t be going right in Iraq, Edwards would assert, because we have not yet found peace there; just watch your nightly news. All this, of course, was just a replay of Kerry’s mode of attack, but, I sensed that Edwards was not quite up to it. He very quickly fell into a snarky mode. It made Cheney look even more collected and mature.
The short of it is this: Edwards accuses the administration of lying about many things, but especially about Iraq, and even Afghanistan: "Mr. Vice President, you are not being straight with the American people." Cheney accuses Edwards and his would-be-boss of inconsistencies too many to count (although he listed many) and claimed that their past votes in the Senate are perfect reflections of both their slippery politics and the fact that they can’t be trusted to do what should be done. This is a dangerous world and grown men who mean what they say need to be in positions of authority. Both Kerry and Edwards lack credibility and "there’s no indication at all that John Kerry has the conviction to carry through in the War on Terror," said Cheney.
The first point went to Cheney when he corrected Edwards about the mantra that it is the United States who is suffering 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and bearing 90 percent of the expenses (and that those costs are at $200 billion). Cheney meticulously explained why the $200 billion is incorrect, but then added, "you probably weren’t there to vote on that." He then chided Edwards for ignoring the Iraqi losses which account for about 50 percent of the casualties. Edwards came back to the point, trying to refine it away, but was thrown off by Cheney’s precise logic and the facts. Edwards was off-balance for the rest of the match. Facts are durable things, aren’t they? He was only able to repeat phrases from his stump speeches, which quickly became stale. How often can a man say "we have a plan" without ever telling us what it is?
The second point also went to Cheney when Gwen Ifill asked Edwards what Kerry meant by the "global test" Kerry said he would make sure the United States passed when going after terrorists. "What is a global test if it’s not a global veto?" she asked. Edwards lamely responded by saying that "global test" means telling other countries the truth. He claimed that the United States was not credible. But Cheney said: "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." He accused them of being "on the wrong side of defense issues."
The third and last point also went to Cheney through a combination of using the Democrats’ voting record to highlight inconsistencies and also to show that Edwards was all-too-frequently absent from the Senate. Cheney referred to one of his few constitutional duties as president of the Senate and noted that he was there most Tuesday’s when the Senate was in session and despite the fact that Edwards has been in the Senate for six years, the two had never met until tonight. This was a serious moment that threw Edwards back, and he never recovered. The gasp from the audience was audible.
What was left of the match saw Edwards repeat—sometimes haltingly and often incorrectly—phrases from the campaign. He flailed and smiled, waved and smiled, misspoke and smiled, but somehow the silver tongue was silent. And Cheney stood above him as the serene and strong wrestler who never lost his balance during the whole match. The other side was relieved when it was over. The spin started, and I left.
Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.