To hear Vice President Cheney tell it in Tuesday night's debate, Democrats like John Edwards and John Kerry are the only Americans foolish enough or unpatriotic enough to complain about the administration's management of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"You're not credible on Iraq," a scowling Cheney told Edwards minutes into this year's only vice presidential debate. The man whose imprint on the planning and implementation of the administration's Middle Eastern military misadventure has been far firmer than that of President Bush ripped into Kerry and Edwards repeatedly in the heated first half hour of the debate. "These are two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad," Cheney said of the Democratic ticket, after speculating that pressure from Democratic primary rival Howard Dean -- as opposed to mounting death tolls and a general sense that the occupation had degenerated into a quagmire -- offered the only real explanation for why the Democratic ticket is now critical of the administration's approach to the war.
But, this time, the vice president had trouble peddling the big lie.
Edwards trumped Cheney's spin by unleashing what may well be the most powerful weapon in the Democratic arsenal this year: Republicans.
"(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," Edwards said, referencing three senior Republican senators. "And when they were asked why, Richard Lugar said because of the incompetence of the administration."
Edwards hit Cheney where it hurts. Just as Cheney warps the truth beyond recognition when he spins his fantasies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, so he also misleads when he claims that debates about Iraq break down along partisan lines.
There is no longer any credibility to the vice president's constant claim that partisanship is the sole -- or even the substantial -- motivation of those who have criticized the administration's multiple missteps in the prosecution of this unwise and unnecessary war.
Indeed, none of the criticisms that Edwards tossed Cheney's way in Tuesday night's debate between the Democratic and Republican contenders for the vice presidency was so devastatingly on target as the observation made several days ago by Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs of the Senate Foreign Committee.
"Our committee heard blindly optimistic people from the administration prior to the war (say) that we just simply will be greeted with open arms," Lugar complained last month. "The lack of planning is apparent."
By his choice of words, Lugar left little doubt about the identity of the most impaired of the administration's blind optimists. Appearing on "Meet the Press" the Sunday before the war began, it was Cheney who declared, "We will be greeted as liberators."
Perhaps the most broadly respected Republican specialist on foreign policy in the Congress, Lugar is one of a growing number of Republicans who have stepped up to criticize Cheney and the administration in language that is far more aggressive than that employed by Edwards on Tuesday night.
US Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran who is broadly regarded for his international affairs expertise, has ridiculed the cheerleading claims by Cheney and other administration insiders regarding progress on the warfront.
Those claims, Hagel said, do not "add up... to a picture that shows that we're winning." But the Nebraskan said, "It does add up to this: an acknowledgment that we're in deep trouble."
How bad are things in Iraq? To Hagel's view, it is "beyond pitiful and embarrassing, It is now in the zone of dangerous."
Imagine Cheney's reaction if Edwards had been so blunt during Tuesday night's debate?
And just imagine Cheney's reaction if the Democrat had echoed the assessment of US Representative John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, who has suggested that the deceptive manner in which the administration made its "case" for war with Iraq has sewn seeds of distrust that will make it harder to take even necessary military action in the future. "A very small minority of very powerful Neo-Cons have apparently dreamed of war with Iraq for many years. They got their wish. But what they may have thought would be their crowning achievement may instead lead to their downfall," Duncan argued last month. "So many people in the US and around the world feel they were misled about the need to go to war in Iraq that they almost certainly will be much harder to convince the next time around."
When Edwards reviewed the challenges that exist in Iraq and Afghanistan Tuesday night, Cheney dismissed him as an uninformed, patriotically-challenged doomsayer. Yet, Cheney heard nothing from his Democratic challenger that could rival the withering assault he has faced from prominent Republicans. Much has been made of recent deviations from the official spin by key players in the administration -- particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's observation that there was no evidence of the connection between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network. But the real heat on Cheney has come from elected Republican members of the Congress who, like John Kerry and John Edwards, have dealt with war-and-terrorism issues since September 11, 2001.
Bush and Cheney have ripped their Democratic foes for proposing to address the crisis in Iraq by working with other nations. Yet, Lugar said recently in a speech at the Fletcher School of Tufts University that: "(The) war on terror will not be won through attrition, particularly since military action will often breed more terrorists and more resentment of the United States. Unless the United States commits itself to a sustained program of repairing and building alliances, expanding trade, pursuing resolutions to regional conflicts, supporting democracy worldwide, and controlling weapons of mass destruction, we are likely to experience acts of catastrophic terrorism."
Those acts of terrorism could kill thousands, perhaps millions, Lugar argued.
Unfortunately, says the Republican senator, "The United States, as a nation, simply has not made this commitment (to address all the terrorist threats in a realistic manner.) We are worried about terrorism, but the evolution of national security policy has not kept up with the threat. We have relied heavily on military options and unilateral approaches that have weakened our alliances."
Remarkably, when Edwards offered far more tepid critiques of the administration's approach to the war on terrorism, Cheney crawled down the Democrat's throat. "We have not seen the kind of consistency that a commander in chief has to have in order to be a leader in wartime and in order to be able to see the strategy through to victory," the vice president claimed.
As Bush did in last Thursday's presidential debate, the vice president attacked Edwards and Kerry for voting to authorize the use of force against Iraq and then criticizing the president for his inept prosecution of the war. But buyer's remorse about this war is not merely a Democratic phenomenon.
Former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, a veteran member of the House International Relations Committee and the vice chair of the House Intelligence Committee, voted in favor of the use-of-force resolution in 2002. Yet, the Republican who departed Congress this year to become the president of the Asia Foundation now says the war has become "a dangerous, costly mess." And, unlike Kerry and Edwards, Bereuter freely admits he was wrong.
"I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things are being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action," he explains.
That's not the only place where the Republican, who served 13 terms in the House, has been blunter than Kerry or Edwards. "Knowing what I know about the reliance on the tenuous or insufficiently corroborated intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD (weapons of mass destruction) arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified."
When Cheney talked Tuesday night about what the administration used to refer to as "the coalition of the willing" that has supported the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Edwards offered a more sober assessment of this country's isolation. But Bereuter leaves no room for debate, saying, "our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."
Elected Republicans are not only noting the degeneration of international alliances. They point, as well, to the decay of civil liberties at home.
"We must take effective measures to protect ourselves from a terrorist attack. That does not mean rushing to embrace legislation that in the long run will do little to stop terrorism, but will do a great deal to undermine the very way of life we should be protecting," says U.S. Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who voted against authorizing the president to use force against Iraq and against the Patriot Act. "Just as we must not allow terrorists to threaten our lives, we must not allow government to threaten our liberties."
The Republican dissent against Cheney's line on Iraq and homeland security has drawn scant attention from the chattering classes of cable television -- far less than was accorded the attacks on Kerry by Georgia Democratic Senator "Zigzag Zell" Miller. But Miller is not the only senator who is rejecting his party's ticket this year.
U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, the moderate Republican from Rhode Island, has indicated that he will not vote for Bush's reelection. Chafee, the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the 2002 use-of-force resolution, is straight forward about why. The senator describes himself as an "anti-war Republican." That's phrase may not fit into Dick Cheney's lexicon. But, whether the vice president wants to admit it or not, the skepticism about this administration's Iraq imbroglio is not just a Democratic indulgence.
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com