Each man had his mission for the vice-presidential debate. For John Edwards, it was to continue John Kerry's momentum from his debate triumph over President Bush; for Dick Cheney, to halt it in its tracks. Edwards assailed Cheney's credibility; Cheney demeaned Edwards's status. But the debate went past scoring points into a clash of political cultures.
Edwards began immediately to separate the Iraq war from the war on al-Qaida. Reports that morning provided a propitious backdrop. Paul Bremer, the former coalition provisional authority chief, had said that the strength of US forces had been insufficient from the start, leading to the present chaos. Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, had disclaimed any connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11. That implication had been a principal reason for public support of the war. The latest Gallup poll shows that 62% of Republicans still believe that Saddam was behind 9/11.
"I have not suggested there is a connection between Iraq and 9/11," Cheney said. But he had done so many times, and the networks broadcast tapes of these statements after the debate. Cheney would still brook no admission of error. "What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had to recommend it all over again, I would ..."
Cheney expected the assertion of his authority to be sufficient to make his case. His logic is built on his force. He was commanding, domineering, sardonic and intimidating. His transparent attitude to the debate was as if it were a waste of his valuable time.
Cheney made no effort to hide his sense of unaccountability. Facts that did not serve him were treated like unruly underlings. His self-assurance in lying even when politically unnecessary revealed why he is the power in the vacuum. He could only exist with a chief executive self-absorbed in his resentments and narrow in experience and intellectual scope, who does not hold his vice-president accountable; a national security adviser incompetent in her eagerness to please; and a secretary of state who accepts his internal defeats, always playing the good soldier.
Faced by another younger man, Cheney attempted to denigrate him. "Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up ... Now, in my capacity as vice-president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."
With that, the master of Washington dismissed the apprentice. But it turned out that Cheney's statement was untrue. He and Edwards had met several times before and photographs were published the next day showing the two together. Cheney's effort to intimidate Edwards rebounded on his credibility, the larger point the former trial lawyer was pressing. The case for the Bush doctrine floundered on the Groucho Marx doctrine: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"
Then, in an act of grace, Edwards did more than unnerve Cheney. Edwards praised him and his wife for their "love" and "embrace" of their gay daughter. Cheney, who seemed personally affected, could only thank him. But Edwards went on to counter Bush's support for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage. "It's nothing but a political tool ... We ought to be talking about issues like healthcare and jobs and what's happening in Iraq, not using an issue to divide this country ..."
The Republicans have sought to stigmatise the Democrats as effeminate - "girlie men," "sensitive," "metrosexual". Edwards silenced Cheney; he also opened a political fissure in the fundamentalist Republican base. Cheney, unlike Bush, does not speak the language of the born-again. It is Bush, not Cheney, who appeals to the religious right.
Edwards's attack on Cheney as CEO of Halliburton and a representative of entrenched special interests added another element to the strain of southern populism that runs back to before the civil war in its appeal to working-class whites against the plantation class. Even today, blacks and whites are deliberately divided by racial fear used as a "political tool". Now the lavender menace is used to augment racial anxiety.
Cheney's performance revealed how formidable he is as the power behind the throne and how inadequate as a public man. Through charm and litheness, Edwards demonstrated that Bambi is the disguise of a fox. But enduring issues of class and culture, of power and democracy, were disclosed in this one-time encounter between the high-handed Cheney and the quicksilver Edwards.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is Washington bureau chief of salon.com
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