WASHINGTON—Dick Cheney was every inch the president so many accuse him of being in Tuesday night’s debate. Unlike the stumbling George Bush of last week’s contest, the vice president turned aside John Edwards’s attacks by simply saying the senator didn’t know what he was talking about. Cheney hammered the Kerry-Edwards ticket as having a record of being inconsistent and duplicitous. He painted Edwards and John Kerry as having been AWOL for Senate votes, and as two insignificant con men not worth talking to or about.
In doing so, Cheney may well have rescued Bush from losing any further support in the polls. He gave no ground to Edwards and successfully stuck to the tried-and-true politician’s answer to any and all accusations: Stonewall and repeat your position over and over, no matter how ridiculous.
Most amazing was that Edwards got nowhere with Halliburton’s performance in Iraq. A former Halliburton boss, Cheney just said Edwards had the facts wrong. And Edwards dropped the subject.
Domestic policy was treated as an afterthought. Neither candidate even mentioned inflation and the spiraling cost of oil, which are badly hurting ordinary people.
Time after time, Cheney trapped Edwards into explaining Kerry’s positions, forcing him to waste time and transform himself into an often embarrassing P.R. guy.
On domestic issues, neither Republicans or Democrats have much to offer. The parties long ago abandoned New Deal social policies in favor of laissez faire private competition. Their economic plans amount to little more than a complex shell game of shifting tax rates. Tonight, there was no serious discussion of health care. Nothing on free trade. Nothing on social issues, such as reproductive choice and stem cell research, except for both men expressing sympathy—but not support—for gay people who want to get married. Neither of the candidates did more than mention in passing the loss of jobs and decline in wages and standard of living. Instead they droned on about the cost of lawsuits. On health care, Edwards’s main program—as it was in his campaign—is to promise he would stand up to misleading drug company ads on television. Cheney’s preposterous claims of Medicare reform went pretty much unchallenged.
The debate took place against a back drop of turmoil and hectic maneuvering in the Bush camp. On Tuesday morning, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Bush’s administrator of the occupation in Iraq, said the U.S. did not have sufficient troops for the invasion or for establishing security afterwards. “We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness,” he told an insurance conference in West Virginia. “We never had enough troops on the ground.” Bremer has made criticisms of the administration’s Iraq policies
before, but to deliver such a speech now, amid campaign debates and in words echoing Kerry’s, appears a direct slap in the face to Bush.
Also on Tuesday, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a major architect of the Iraq war, openly doubted a
connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. “To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two,” he said. Later the BBC quoted Rumsfeld as saying he had been misunderstood.
Meanwhile the Bush campaign was maneuvering wildly, trying to get the president on solid footing before he faces Kerry again on Friday. The White House scheduled a “significant speech” for the president Wednesday in which he can clarify his positions on national security and domestic policies. After signing the so-called “middle class” tax cut bill, which in fact offers scant rewards to the middle class, Bush let it be known that he was opposed to changes in corporate taxes under discussion in a House-Senate conference. Republican leaders in Congress have been trying to get the legislation passed and signed into law. John W. Snow, secretary of the Treasury, said the legislation had included “a myriad of special-interest tax provisions that benefit few taxpayers.”
Thus Bush, who already offered a spurious tax-cut bill in the name of relieving the middle class, continues trying to play the good-guy populist by attacking corporate special interests.