As he prepares to debate Halliburton CEO turned Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator John Edwards would do well to study up on his Harry Truman. The buck-stops-here President had a word for war profiteering: “treason.” He had another word for those political and business leaders who condone “waste, inefficiency, mismanagement and profiteering” during a time of war: “unpatriotic.” If John Kerry’s running mate wants to have a greater impact in his debate with the Vice President–which follows hard on the first presidential debate–than did the woefully inept Joe Lieberman when he faced Cheney in 2000, Edwards has to drop the faux friendliness of the Washington elites whom Truman so disdained in favor of blunt talk about Cheney, starting with his Halliburton connections.
Halliburton has been experiencing a growth spurt ever since Cheney passed through the revolving door of Washington politics to set up the Administration he manages for George W. Bush. The Texas-based corporation moved to number one on the Army’s list of top contractors in 2003, pocketing 4.2 billion taxpayer dollars last year alone. It got one no-bid contract after discussions in which Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was involved. (Despite soaring revenues, however, the Halliburton unit doing work in Iraq is plagued by so many problems, from mismanagement to allegations of corruption, that it may be spun off to try to salvage what’s left of the parent company’s reputation.)
If Edwards brings Halliburton up during his Tuesday night face-off with Cheney in Cleveland, the Vice President will undoubtedly claim–as he has whenever he’s been challenged–that he no longer has any connection with Halliburton. Edwards can counter with another of those blunt Trumanisms: “liar.” The Vice President continues to receive money from Halliburton–$178,437 in 2003 alone–and a Congressional Research Service study has described the sort of deferred-salary payments he receives and the millions in stock options he retains as “among those benefits described by the Office of Government Ethics as ‘retained ties’ or ‘linkages’ to one’s former employer.” In other words, Cheney has a great big conflict of interest, and pounding away on it will go a long way toward exposing the crony capitalism that has been a hallmark of the Bush Administration.
Edwards should talk about all the other troubling aspects of Cheney’s tenure, too. As Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols explains in his new book, Dick: The Man Who Is President (New Press), most of the pathologies of the Bush Administration can be traced back to Cheney, who chaired the corrupt Energy Task Force and pressed Bush to make a second round of tax cuts for the rich, which then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill worried were unwise and unsound.
This is the armchair warrior who as a college student collected five draft deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam but who entered the White House campaigning for war on Iraq and never let up. Since the September 11 attacks, and with increasing ferocity during the current campaign, Cheney has served as Bush’s scaremonger in chief–evoking images of thousands of Americans killed by terrorists with nuclear weapons and seeking to justify the invasion of Iraq by repeating thoroughly discredited claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working with Al Qaeda.
By making a link in the minds of voters between the excesses of Halliburton and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Edwards can help refocus the campaign on the questions that matter. Among them: Which presidential team can be trusted to put the needs of Americans before their own interests and those of their friends? Cheney has made it clear where his loyalties lie.