Vice presidential picks haven’t mattered in the past. And vice presidential debates haven’t mattered. Neither will this one. Dick Cheney and John Edwards each argued the case well for their man, probably better than George W. Bush and John Kerry did for themselves five nights earlier. They scored points and blocked attacks, reinforcing each campaign’s major talking points of the moment. For Cheney it was, Kerry is weak on national security and too inconsistent to be an effective commander-in-chief at a time of war. For Edwards, it was, Bush and Cheney have not told Americans the truth about the war in Iraq and the ongoing mess there, and we have a plan to do better in Iraq and at home. But neither succeeded in their attempts to knock the other out of the ring. Edwards went after Halliburton, but Cheney was hardly defensive about his old company. And he did not come across as a dark, behind-the-scenes force. Cheney accused Edwards of amassing a do-nothing record in the Senate, yet Edwards demonstrated he was as well-versed on the issues as Cheney and denied Republicans the chance to shout about a stature gap between the two.

Did I already say this debate won’t matter? Voters don’t think about vice presidential candidates on Election Day. (Didn’t Dan Quayle prove that?) This 90-minute session at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland was political sport–an exhibition game that only would have an impact if a player suffered a major injury. And there were none. But the debate did show that neither campaign is departing from its established gameplan. Cheney emphasized national security, suggesting that only Bush can keep the nation safe. Edwards attacked the Bush-Cheney record in Iraq, but he also expanded the critique to encompass domestic matters, slamming Bush and Cheney for cutting taxes for the wealthy and for doing nothing to provide health care coverage to the uninsured. It was a sign the Kerry campaign, after Kerry’s successful outing in the foreign policy debate last week, wants to land some blows on Bush regarding kitchen-table issues.

Let’s go to the (irrelevant) highlights.

* The first question of the night–which moderator Gwen Ifill partially flubbed–concerned Iraq and the alleged connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Cheney once again claimed that Hussein had “an established relationship” with al Qaeda. But the day before the debate, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had said he had not seen “hard evidence” of any operational alliance. And, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the 9/11 commission, and the CIA had also concluded there was no working relationship. Yet Cheney cannot drop this bone. He noted, “The effort that we’ve mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.” But there were no WMDs in Iraq, and no al Qaeda terrorists–at least before the invasion. Al Qaeda at that point was more likely to obtain loose nukes originating in the former Soviet Union or WMD assistance from sympathizers in the Pakistan military.

Edwards did not immediately challenge Cheney on any of this. Instead, he led off with the credibility and competency issues: “Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. I mean, the reality you and George Bush continue to tell people, first, that things are going well in Iraq–the American people don’t need us to explain this to them, they see it on their television every single day. We lost more troops in September than we lost in August; lost more in August than we lost in July; lost more in July than we lost in June….And it’s not just me that sees the mess in Iraq. There are Republican leaders, like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel, who have said Iraq is a mess and it’s getting worse. And when they were asked why, Richard Lugar said because of the incompetence of the administration….We need a fresh start.” But moments later, Edwards blasted Cheney for having implied a connection between 9/11 and Hussein.

Cheney tried to argue this point. “The senator has got his facts wrong,” Cheney commented. “I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there’s clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror.” But after 9/11 Cheney did suggest there was an Iraqi role in the attacks by repeatedly referring to the allegation that Mohamed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had once met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. He even cited this allegation after it was debunked by the CIA and the FBI. Yet tonight he claimed he had done no such thing. A senior moment? Or a flip-flop?

* Edwards did a fine job–and perhaps was more effective than Kerry–in explaining Kerry’s position on Iraq. He remarked, “Saddam Hussein needed to be confronted. John Kerry and I have consistently said that. That’s why we voted for the resolution. But it also means it needed to be done the right way. And doing it the right way meant that we were prepared; that we gave the weapons inspectors time to find out what we now know, that in fact there were no weapons of mass destruction; that we didn’t take our eye off the ball, which are al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.”

Cheney countered by insisting that Kerry does not have the mettle to do what needs to be done in the fight against terrorists: “The big difference here, Gwen, is they are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. They’ve got a very limited view about how to use U.S. military forces to defend America. We heard Senator Kerry say the other night that there ought to be some kind of global test before U.S. troops are deployed preemptively to protect the United States.” That is not what Kerry said at the first debate, but it is the spin that the Bush campaign has been hurling since the moment Bush and Kerry walked off the state.

* Cheney revived the criticism he has been pushing on the campaign trail, arguing that Kerry has spent 30 years voting against weapons systems and funding for intelligence and the military: “It’s a consistent pattern over time of always being on the wrong side of defense issues.” He also derided Edwards for having “a record in the Senate that’s not very distinguished.” Cheney observed,

“You’ve missed 33 out of 36 meetings in the Judiciary Committee, almost 70 percent of the meetings of the intelligence committee. You’ve missed a lot of key votes: on tax policy, on energy, on Medicare reform. Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you ‘Senator Gone.’ You’ve got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate. 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.”

Meow. (After the debate, the Kerry campaign zapped out an email with a partial transcript of the 2001 National Prayer Breakfast, during which Cheney spoke and acknowledged the presence of Edwards. The email also noted that Edwards escorted Elizabeth Dole when she was sworn in as a senator in 2003 by Cheney.) And Edwards gave as good as he got:

“The vice president, I’m surprised to hear him talk about records. When he was one of 435 members of the United States House, he was one of ten to vote against Head Start, one of four to vote against banning plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors. He voted against the Department of Education. He voted against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors. He voted against a holiday for Martin Luther King. He voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.”

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When you’re done reading this article,visit David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Donald Rumsfeld’s conversion, Condoleezza Rice’s silly spin, Colin Powell’s near-apology, and how the media covers for the Bush campaign.

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* The two tussled over casualties in Iraq. Edwards noted that 90 percent of the “coalition casualties” are American GIs. Cheney shot back, “the 90 percent figure is just dead wrong.” When Iraqi security forces are included in the count, he insisted, the US share of casualties drops to 50 percent. But Edwards had said “coalition” forces, meaning the nations that the United States had recruited for the war in Iraq. Cheney also jumped on Edwards for saying the cost of the war is $200 billion. He maintained it was $120 billion (as if that would be a bargain). But in Washington, the expectation is that the White House early next year is going to have to request at least $60 billion or so in funding for the war–which is money the Bush administration refused to place in the 2005 budget for the war. Include that money, and Edwards is more correct than Cheney.

* Cheney’s most effective strike probably came when he tried to make Kerry and Edwards appear like craven pols. Talking about their positions on Iraq, he said,

“We’ve seen a situation in which, first, they voted to commit the troops, to send them to war, John Edwards and John Kerry, then they came back and when the question was whether or not you provide them with the resources they needed–body armor, spare parts, ammunition–they voted against it. I couldn’t figure out why that happened initially. And then I looked and figured out that what was happening was Howard Dean was making major progress in the Democratic primaries, running away with the primaries based on an antiwar record. So they, in effect, decided they would cast an antiwar vote and they voted against the troops. Now if they couldn’t stand up to the pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al Qaeda?”

Ouch. And Edwards got nasty in return: “One thing that’s very clear is that a long resume does not equal good judgment. I mean, we’ve seen over and over and over the misjudgments made by this administration….On the $87 billion [appropriations bill funding military action in Iraq], it was clear at the time of that vote that they had no plan to win the peace. We’re seeing the consequences of that everyday on the ground right now. We stood up and said: For our troops, we must have a plan to win the peace. We also thought it was wrong to have a $20 billion fund out of which $7.5 billion was going to go to a no-bid contract for Halliburton, the vice president’s former company.” Moments later, he added, “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. 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.”

* After Ifill asked Cheney about his opposition to sanctions against Iran when he was CEO of Halliburton, he noted that was no longer his position. Edwards then took another swing at the Halliburton connection:

“I mentioned Halliburton a few minute ago in connection with the $87 billion, and you raised it in this question. This is relevant, because he was pushing for lifting sanctions when he was CEO of Halliburton. Here’s why we didn’t think Halliburton should have a no-bid contract. While he was CEO of Halliburton, they paid millions of dollars in fines or providing false information on their company, just like Enron and Ken Lay. They did business with Libya and Iran, two sworn enemies of the United States. They’re now under investigation for having bribed foreign officials during that period of time. Not only that, they’ve gotten a $7.5 billion no-bid contract in Iraq, and instead of part of their money being withheld, which is the way it’s normally done, because they’re under investigation, they’ve continued to get their money.”

Cheney claimed all these charges were false and asked viewers to visit “factcheck.com” to get the full truth. Well, he meant www.factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania. (Anyone who clicked on www.factcheck.com ended up at www.georgesoros.com, the site for the anti-Bush billionaire, which exclaims, “Why We Must Not Re-elect President Bush: A Personal Message from George Soros.” I hope Soros sends Cheney a thank-you note.) An article on the factcheck.org site does criticize a Kerry campaign ad for inaccurately stating Cheney has a financial stake in Halliburton’s Iraq contracts because he has been receiving deferred compensation from the company. But the factcheck.org review does not refute any of the Halliburton charges Edwards recounted.

* When the discussion turned to the economy, the two candidates were on different planets. Cheney claimed that 111 million American taxpayers have “benefited from our income tax cuts. We’ve got 33 million students who’ve benefited from No Child Left Behind. We’ve got 40 million seniors who benefited from the reform of the Medicare system.” Edwards countered, “Millions of people have lost their jobs. Millions have fallen into poverty. Family incomes are down, while the cost of everything is going up. Medical costs are up the highest they’ve ever been over the last four years.” In talking about the economy and taxes, Cheney was matter-of-fact. Edwards was passionate. “The country needs to know,” he said, “that under what [Bush and Cheney] have put in place and want to put in place, a millionaire sitting by their swimming pool, collecting their statements to see how much money they’re making, make their money from dividends, pays a lower tax rate than the men and women who are receiving paychecks for serving on the ground in Iraq. Now, they may think that’s right. John Kerry and I do not. We don’t just value wealth, which they do. We value work in this country. And it is a fundamental value difference between them and us.”

* When the debate turned to the subject of Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, was, in a way, clearer than Edwards. “States,” he said, “have regulated marriage, if you will. That would be my preference….Now, [the president] sets the policy for this administration, and I support the president.” Edwards noted that he and Kerry believe that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to marry, but that they deserve partnership rights, and that the constitution should not be amended. This might be a coherent position, but it does sound like a mixed message. After this exchange–in which Edwards noted that “you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that [Dick and Lynne Cheney are] willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her”–Cheney did not accept Ifill’s invitation to attack Edwards as trial attorney, which he and other Republicans regularly do on the campaign trail.

There were zingers, but neither side moved the needle. In his closing statement, Edwards–who did not this evening reprise his “two Americas” theme–concentrated on the domestic issues. He recalled being young and watching his father at the kitchen table early in the mornings learning math on television so he could get a better job at the mill. “I have grown up in the bright light of America,” Edwards said. “But that light is flickering today. Now, I know that the vice president and the president don’t see it, but you do. You see it when your incomes are going down and the cost of everything–college tuition, health care–is going through the roof. You see it when you sit at your table each night and there’s an empty chair because a loved one is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. What they’re going to give you is four more years of the same.” Cheney focused on national security: “The only viable option for winning the war on terrorism is the one the president has chosen, to use the power of the United States to aggressively go after the terrorists wherever we find them and also to hold to account states that sponsor terror.” It was the friendly populist versus the serious-as-a-heart-attack protector. And a viewer’s reaction to each of the two was probably determined by the opinion he or she held before the debate.

Both Cheney and Edwards were effective spear-carriers. Both echoed the messages of their respective campaigns. But there will be little talk of this debate following the morning after. By then the political chat will have shifted to expectations regarding Friday night’s Bush-Kerry rematch.

And did I mention that this debate won’t matter?

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