Number Twos Take Center Stage

Posted: Oct 06, 2004 12:00 AM

It?s probably no coincidence that, on the day of the vice presidential debate, comedian Rodney Dangerfield died. Like him, Sen. John Edwards and vice president Dick Cheney probably think they get ?no respect.?

 They certainly didn?t from ABC News. ?This will be a very forgettable event,? commentator George Will said after the debate. ?By Friday, [when President Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry take the stage again] this will seem as distant as the Peloponnesian Wars.?

At least Will remembered who?d debated. Anchor Peter Jennings referred to Sen. John Edwards as ?John Kerry? at least four times during his post-debate analysis (an excusable lapse, to be sure)..

Edwards himself didn?t have much to say about himself. Even when  moderator Gwen Ifill asked him to answer a question without mentioning his running mate by name, Edwards spoke about ?John Kerry? -- twice. He seemed especially relieved when Ifill allowed him to say ?John Kerry? again. It wasn?t an Admiral Stockdale moment -- but viewers could be excused if, after that exchange, they wondered about Edwards, ?who are you, and why are you there??

In that vein, the post-debate interviews were valuable. On NBC, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina spoke up for the Democratic and Republican tickets, respectively (and respectably). Biden has spent decades in the Senate. Watching him spin so effectively, one could only wonder why Kerry selected Edwards to be his second banana. Quite frankly, Biden is better qualified. 

Edwards himself seemed unable to answer when Ifell asked about his qualifications. ?I don?t claim to have the long political resum?hat Vice President Cheney has,? Edwards admitted. But, ?what we know from this administration is that a long resum?oes not equal good judgment.?

Nice soundbite -- so nice he used it twice. But the problem is that John Kerry also has a long record -- ?a record of 30 years of being on the wrong side of defense issues,? as Cheney reminded him.

Cheney did a much better job of spotlighting that record than Bush did five days earlier. Where the president had merely mentioned in passing, ?I?m not so sure I admire [Kerry?s] record,? Cheney was aggressive: ?In 1984, when [Kerry] ran for the Senate, he opposed, or called for the elimination of, a great many major weapons systems that were crucial to winning the Cold War and are important today to our overall forces.?

Kerry, he noted, voted against the first Gulf War in 1991, voted (along with Edwards) in favor of the current Iraq war, and then voted against the $87 billion the president requested to pay for the war?s aftermath.

In attempting to respond to that, Edwards stepped into the trap that will cost his side this election: Their Iraq policy makes no sense. ?John Kerry has been absolutely clear and consistent from the beginning that we must stay focused on the people who attacked us; that Saddam Hussein was a threat that needed to be addressed directly; that the weapons inspectors needed to have time to do their job,? Edwards said.

However, ?had they had time to do their job, they would have discovered what we now know, that in fact Saddam Hussein had no weapons, that in fact Saddam Hussein has no connection with 9/11, that in fact Saddam Hussein has little or no connection with al Qaeda,? he added. Following that logic, there would, in fact, have been no reason to invade Iraq, since Saddam Hussein wouldn?t have turned out to be a threat at all.

Yet both Kerry and Edwards voted to allow the president to invade Iraq, and as recently as August, Kerry admitted that he?d vote the same way again, even knowing what he does now. ?Consistency? isn?t the word that leaps to mind here. ?Confusion,? maybe.

Later in the debate, Cheney drew blood over casualty figures. Edwards insisted that American forces comprise 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq. But Cheney pointed out that when you factor in the losses suffered by Iraqi security forces, that number drops to about 50 percent.

?You want to be able to say that the Americans are taking 90 percent of the sacrifice,? the vice president said. But he warned, ?You cannot succeed in this effort if you?re not willing to recognize the enormous contribution the Iraqis are increasingly making to their own future.?

After the debate, CBS?s Bob Schieffer claimed that the administration needs to find a different way to explain this war. But that?s backwards.

The administration consistently says the war was part of the greater war on terrorism. Viewers may or not believe that. But it seems likely that people realize that we?re not at war merely with al Qaeda, as Kerry and Edwards keep saying. We?re at war with terrorists in general.

Iraq was a haven for terrorists, and therefore it was a threat. Kerry and Edwards claim they understand that, even as they?re claiming that we?re in the ?wrong war at the wrong time.? Time is running out for them to find a way to square this circle.