The Vice Presidential Debate

A study in contrasts

October 07, 2004|By Jules Witcover

CLEVELAND - Stylistically, the contrast could not have been starker between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards in their debate. Mr. Cheney looked like Dr. Doom, and Mr. Edwards was Mr. Smiley Face.

So it was surprising to hear Mr. Cheney's response to a question asked by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS about how he is different from his opponent. His reply: "Well, in some respects I think probably there are more similarities than there are differences in our personal story."

Mr. Cheney then painted himself as coming from the same working-class background that Mr. Edwards has made the centerpiece of his personal narrative.

"I come from relatively modest circumstances," Mr. Cheney explained. "My grandfather never even went to high school. I'm the first in my family to graduate from college. I carried a ticket [union card] in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for six years. I've been laid off, been hospitalized without health insurance. So I have some idea of the problems that people encounter."

Mr. Cheney then cited a sharp contrast between him and Mr. Edwards - how he went into public service early whereas Mr. Edwards first had a career as a successful trial lawyer and then only a single term in the Senate. He then segued into his standard defense of invading Iraq in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on which he and the North Carolina senator differ significantly.

Mr. Edwards, artfully dodging the question of how he differed from Mr. Cheney, reminded the vice president that "we were attacked, but we weren't attacked by Saddam Hussein." He said he agreed, though, "on the need to be offensive in going after terrorists."

Despite Mr. Cheney's recitation of similarities with Mr. Edwards, the debate taken as a whole represented basic role reversals for them. Mr. Edwards, repeatedly harping on the dire conditions in Iraq, and with accusations that Mr. Cheney and President Bush were whitewashing them, was the one who often sounded like Dr. Doom.

It was the vice president, professing "significant progress in Iraq" and "rapidly training Iraqis to take the security responsibility," who sounded more like Mr. Smiley Face - while never changing his dour countenance.

Mr. Edwards, in reference to a drumbeat theme of the Bush campaign, aggressively stole a page from Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney by observing that "they should know something about flip-flops. They've seen a lot of it during their own administration." As evidence, he cited their early opposition to having an independent 9/11 commission, to creating a Department of Homeland Security and other changes of positions.

When Mr. Cheney at one point observed that he and Mr. Bush never questioned Sen. John Kerry's patriotism - "what we questioned was his judgment" - Mr. Edwards, alluding to Mr. Cheney's greater experience, observed: "What we know from this administration is that a long rM-isumM-i does not equal good judgment."

Mr. Edwards also directly confronted Mr. Cheney about his role as a onetime CEO of Halliburton Corp. and the firm's controversial operations in Iraq. This time, it was Mr. Cheney's turn to duck the issue.

The senator demonstrated for 90 minutes that while he can't match Mr. Cheney's experience, he is no Dan Quayle - President George H. W. Bush's vice president - validating Mr. Kerry's choice of him as his running mate.

But Mr. Cheney, too, validated Mr. Bush's selection of him by making a more articulate case for the invasion of Iraq and the rationale for pressing the effort to bring democracy to the region than the president had made in the first debate.

If there was any significant result, it was that the Bush-Cheney team remained on the defensive, where Mr. Kerry had put it in the first debate. So the most theatrical part of the 2004 campaign moves on to the second Bush-Kerry debate tomorrow night in St. Louis, with the pressure this time on the president to regain his footing after an erratic performance in the first encounter.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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