Each man had his mission for the vice presidential debate -- John Edwards to continue John Kerry's momentum from his debate triumph over President Bush, Dick Cheney to halt it in its tracks. Edwards assailed Cheney's credibility; Cheney demeaned Edwards' status. But the debate extended past scoring points into a clash of political cultures.
Edwards began immediately to separate the Iraq war from the war on al-Qaida. Reports Tuesday morning had provided a propitious backdrop. Former Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer said that the number of U.S. military forces had been insufficient from the start, leading to the present chaos. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disclaimed any connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. That implication from major administration figures had been a principal reason for public support of the Iraq war. The latest Gallup poll in fact shows that 62 percent of Republicans still believe in the myth that Saddam was behind 9/11.
"I have not suggested there is a connection between Iraq and 9/11," Cheney simply denied Tuesday night. But, of course, he had done so numerous times, and the networks broadcast tape of these statements after the debate. But Cheney would brook no admission of error, no need for flexibility. "What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action."
Cheney expected that the assertion of his authority would be sufficient to make his case. His logic is built on his force. He was commanding, domineering, sardonic and intimidating. His pronouncements went beyond conviction in their confidence. His transparent attitude toward the debate was as if it were a waste of his valuable time, a child's exercise.
Cheney made no effort to hide his sense of unaccountability. Facts that did not serve him were contemptuously 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, narrow in experience and intellectual scope, and who does not hold his vice president accountable; an incompetent national security advisor, overwound in her eagerness to please; and a secretary of state who never presses his advantages but accepts his internal defeats, playing the good soldier. Bush may be seeking the higher Father above, but Cheney is the father on earth.
Faced with 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. There isn't. Senator, frankly, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished ...
"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 in a way that's solely for political purposes. It's wrong."
Throughout the campaign, the Republicans have sought to stigmatize the Democrats as effeminate -- "girlie men," "sensitive," "metrosexual." Now Edwards silenced and deflated Cheney. He also opened a political fissure in the fundamentalist Republican base. Cheney, unlike Bush, does not speak the language of the born-again evangelical. It is Bush, not Cheney, who appeals to the religious right.
Edwards' attack on Cheney as representative of entrenched special interests as CEO of Halliburton added another element to the strain of Southern populism that runs back before the Civil War in its appeal to poor and working-class whites against the plantation ruling class. Even today, blacks and whites who share common economic interests are deliberately divided and distracted by racial fear as a "political tool." Now the lavender menace is evoked by reactionaries as a surrogate for and augmentation of racial anxiety.
Inevitably, Cheney's performance revealed his formidability as the power behind the throne and inadequacy 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, power and democracy were disclosed in this one-time encounter between the highhanded Cheney and the quicksilver Edwards.