It was the defining moment of the vice-presidential debate: CEO Dick Cheney took the upstart junior exec John Edwards to the woodshed. "You've missed 33 out of 36 meetings of the Judiciary Committee, almost 70 percent of the meetings of the Intelligence Committee," Cheney said, "You've missed a lot of key votes on tax policy, on energy, on Medicare reform. ? You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate." And now you think you deserve my job, you could almost hear Cheney thinking.
John Edwards needed to reassure Americans that he was capable of stepping into the presidency if necessary. Edwards failed, utterly. Will it make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the election? Probably not, but it should. Dan Quayle's callow performance in the 1992 vice-presidential debates, while not a decisive factor in the race, is estimated to have cost the Republicans a couple of percentage points on Election Day. In an election as tight as the 2004 contest, voters ought to hold Edwards accountable for his inexperience and indifference to his sworn duty as a United States senator.
Why should voters trust a man who has so disregarded his obligations as an elected official? Edwards -- a multimillionaire -- continues to draw his $158,100 salary in the Senate, but has been AWOL from the Senate for most of the last two years. His even richer running mate, Sen. John Kerry, too, has neglected his duties, missing 72 percent of the 119 recorded votes in 2003 alone. Both men apparently believe they have the right to live off the taxpayers, while competing for a promotion to the top jobs in government. When faced with a similar decision in 1996, Bob Dole did the honorable thing: He resigned both as majority leader of the Senate and as senator from Kansas.
Edwards tried to forestall an attack on his shallow record by saying, "a long resume does not equal good judgment." But neither Edwards nor Kerry has shown much judgment by holding on to no-show jobs. Whether you're talking about an assembly line worker or the chairman of the board, attendance records like Senators Edwards' and Kerry's would get anyone else fired.
Their willingness to ignore their official duties -- which both men have taken a solemn oath to uphold -- is a major character flaw. It cuts to the heart of whether or not these men can be trusted to do what they promise. For months, Kerry and Edwards have hammered President Bush on what they claim is a credibility gap. They have accused him of lying, deceiving and misleading the public. Edwards did it again last night. "You are not being straight with the American people," he said in reference to the situation in Iraq.
But Edwards did no better than Kerry in explaining what the Democrats would do differently. "We need a president who will speed up the training of Iraqis, get more staff in for doing that. We need to speed up the reconstruction so the Iraqis see some tangible benefit. We need a new president who has the credibility, which John Kerry has, to bring others into this effort."
But Edwards' answer begged the question. The Bush policy is to train the Iraqis as quickly as possible. They've succeeded in getting other nations to pitch in on this effort, including NATO. And even John Kerry admitted yesterday that he won't have much luck in bringing French or German troops to Iraq. "Does that mean allies are going to trade their young for our young in body bags? I know they are not," Kerry said at a campaign stop in Iowa.
Whatever John Kerry or John Edwards are saying, their actions have belied their rhetoric. Given his absence from his Senate duties, it's hard to know where John Edwards stands on important defense issues besides voting against the money to protect our troops in Iraq. But Kerry's record is long -- almost 20 years in the Senate alone. As Cheney pointed out, "A little tough talk in the midst of a campaign or as part of a presidential debate cannot obscure a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues." Based on their records, neither John Kerry nor John Edwards deserves a job promotion.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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