Cheney drops the ball.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 6 2004 3:50 AM

Cheney Drops the Ball

The vice president declines to refute Edwards during the debate.

Cheney: Littering the floor with arguments
Cheney: Littering the floor with arguments

CLEVELAND—Does Dick Cheney know that he told voters watching the vice presidential debate to go to GeorgeSoros.com? In response to a series of attacks from John Edwards on Cheney's tenure as CEO of Halliburton, the vice president said that Kerry and Edwards "know the charges are false. They know that if you go, for example, to factcheck.com, an independent Web site sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, you can get the specific details with respect to Halliburton." One problem with Cheney's rebuttal: He misspoke. He meant to say "factcheck.org," rather than ".com." According to the Wall Street Journal, the company that owns factcheck.com, Name Administration Inc., took advantage of Cheney's error to redirect traffic to a page titled, "Why we must not re-elect President Bush: a personal message from George Soros."*

But maybe Cheney was lucky to have misspoken, because there was a larger problem with his response: It isn't true. Well, it is true that factcheck.org provides "specific details with respect to Halliburton," but those details have nothing to do with the charges Edwards made. The Democratic running mate said that Halliburton, while Cheney was CEO, "did business with sworn enemies of the United States, paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information, it's under investigation for bribing foreign officials." All factcheck.org rebuts is a different charge, that Cheney collected $2 million from Halliburton "as vice president." It turns out that Cheney collected a good chunk of that money as vice president-elect, including nearly $1.5 million on Jan. 18, 2001, two days before his inauguration.

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After the debate, Bush campaign communications director Nicole Devenish repeats Cheney's statement and directs reporters to factcheck.org for the details. I've already been to factcheck.org, I tell her, and it says nothing about what Edwards said, about trading with the enemy, about bribing foreign officials, about providing false financial information. She tells me to go to debatefacts.com, the Bush-Cheney rapid-response Web site. The answers are all there.

Except they're not. "The Facts" page at the Bush-Cheney debate site doesn't get Edwards' claims correctly either: "Edwards' Claim: The Department Of Defense's Contracting Process In Iraq Is Rife With Cronyism And Secrecy," it says. Did Edwards claim that? I thought he said Cheney traded with the enemy, bribed foreign officials, and provided false financial information. On those charges, the Bush-Cheney campaign has no answers, at least not tonight.

The exchange on "factcheck.com" was the debate writ small in many ways: Edwards would make a charge, and Cheney would have no answer for it. In debate, that's called a "dropped argument." Cheney left arguments all over the floor. Three times, when offered a chance to respond to something Edwards had said, Cheney declined, leaving Edwards' critique to stand on its own. Edwards went through a long list of votes that Cheney made as a congressman: against Head Start, against banning plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors, against Meals on Wheels, against the Department of Education, against Martin Luther King Day, against the release of Nelson Mandela. What else was he against, longer recess? Cheney declined to defend or explain a single one of his votes. On gay marriage, Edwards said the constitutional amendment proposed by the president was unnecessary, divisive, and an attempt to distract the country from important issues such as health care, jobs, and Iraq. Cheney declined to refute any of Edwards' points, and instead thanked him for his kind words about his family. On homeland security, Edwards said the administration has failed to create a unified terrorist watch list, and it foolishly screens the passengers on airplanes but not their cargo. We need to be not just "strong and aggressive" but also "smart," he said. Cheney's response: to decline a chance to respond, which is the same as ceding the point.

When Cheney did have an answer, it was often a misleading one, just like factcheck.com. On one occasion, Cheney said the Kerry-Edwards tax plan would raise taxes on 900,000 small businesses, and he said that was a bad idea because small businesses create 7 out of 10 jobs in America. But the two statements have nothing to do with each other. Those 900,000 small businesses—double the real number that would be affected, according to CNN—don't create 70 percent of the nation's jobs. On another occasion, Cheney criticized Kerry for supporting defense cuts that Cheney supported as secretary of defense during the first Bush administration. Other statements were simply false, rather than merely deceptive or misleading. For example, Cheney said he had never asserted a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. That's not true. Cheney said he had never met Edwards before. That's not true.

Edwards didn't have a perfect debate. Cheney defended himself and the administration capably during the opening questions about Iraq and the war on terror, and I was disappointed when Edwards failed to give an answer to Cheney's criticism that he and Kerry have no plan to deal with state sponsors of terror. And Edwards got mauled when Cheney said Edwards, by saying that 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq were American, was saying that the deaths of Iraqi soldiers fighting with the U.S. "shouldn't count."

We're halfway through the debates, and I think that each side still has one big question that it hasn't answered. Kerry and Edwards haven't given an adequate explanation of how they would approach states that sponsor terrorism and harbor terrorism. If Iraq was the wrong country to focus on, what was the right country? Just Afghanistan? Or do they support a broader Bob Graham-style war against Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations? If regime change isn't the right policy for dealing with state sponsors of terror, what is? Would a Kerry-Edwards administration wage a "war on terror," or just a war on al-Qaida?

The question for Bush and Cheney is the same, but from the opposite side. Where does their war stop? When does it end? How do we measure victory? Most important, what is their answer to a question that Edwards posed and Cheney ignored: "There are 60 countries who have members of al-Qaida in them. How many of those countries are we going to invade?"

Correction, Oct. 7, 2004: The article originally claimed that George Soros bought the factcheck.com URL after Cheney referred to it and redirected its traffic to GeorgeSoros.com. In fact, the company that already owned the URL, Name Administration Inc., redirected the traffic to the Soros page. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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