Even before Sen. John Kerry announced that Sen. John Edwards would be his running mate, Democrats were savoring what they expect will be a highlight of this fall’s campaign: when Edwards turns his trial lawyer’s cross-examination skills on Vice President Dick Cheney and the Iraq contracts of Halliburton, the firm Cheney once headed.
The Edwards-Cheney battle is a keen-edged contrast of age (Edwards is 12 years younger than Cheney) and experience (Cheney was serving as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff when Edwards was a freshman in law school). Not to mention personalities: Cheney’s phlegmatic stump-speaking style amounts at times to almost a radical form of anti-campaigning, a polar opposite from Edwards’s relentlessly peppy populism.
Cheney and Edwards are just as much ideological opposites as are President Bush and Democratic contender Sen. John Kerry.
This is emphatically not a case of Kerry putting a conservative Democrat on the ticket to appeal to wavering middle-of-the-road voters, as it would have been if he had chosen Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.
In his years in the House of Representatives, Cheney amassed one of the most conservative records of any member, voting, for instance, in 1986 against economic sanctions to put pressure on the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Cheney today is just as firm in his belief in low taxes, opposition to abortion, and, of course, a pre-emptive foreign policy.
Although he voted for the congressional resolution giving Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, Edwards has a decidedly liberal voting record on most issues. The non-partisan National Journal ranked him more liberal than 95 percent of his colleagues for Senate votes cast in 2003.
The Edwards contrast that really matters is not so much with GOP conservatives as with Southern and Midwestern Democrats who by conviction and in harmony with their constituents are distinctly more conservative than Edwards: Bayh, Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
Edwards seemed to have decided by 2002 that he was betting everything on a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and that he had to vote in accordance with wishes of the national Democratic electorate, not necessarily his North Carolina constituency.
Differences on abortion
On the emotional issue of banning the procedure known as partial birth abortion, for example, Bayh, Breaux, and Lincoln all voted for the ban, which became law last year. So did most Southern Democrats in the House. Edwards voted against it.
The greatest Cheney-Edwards contrast is a symbolic one: Edwards is the plaintiff’s lawyer who made a fortune suing big corporations accused of negligence and malfeasance. Cheney was the chief executive of one of America’s biggest and most demonized corporations, the oil services giant Halliburton.
The Republicans have already opened fire on Edwards for making his millions as a trial lawyer, so the campaign will be a kind of national referendum on personal injury lawsuits and contingency fees as a form of economic justice and redistribution of wealth.
"I'm proud of what I did for 20 years," Edwards told a meeting of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "You should be proud of what you do, giving voice to people who have no voice."
Many Democrats see Cheney as the remote and sinister puppet-master who controls the strings of Bush administration foreign policy. They’ll be rooting for Edwards to apply his cross-examination skills to force Cheney to defend his pre-war predictions about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
And Edwards has the advantage of intensive training in over a dozen televised debates with his Democratic rivals, while Cheney has been out of the fray since his laid-back debate with 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Of course, the Republicans have also had the advantage of being able to train their sights on Edwards for nearly two years as he made his bid for the Democratic nomination.
As early as January of 2003, the Republican National Committee was sending reporters e-mails detailing the liberal incline of the Edwards voting record.
Citing the non-partisan journal Congressional Quarterly, the RNC said, “From 1999-2002, Edwards voted with Senator Ted Kennedy 90 percent of the time and Senator Hillary Clinton 89 percent of the time.”
Republicans launch attacks
Within an hour of the word leaking out that Kerry would turn to Edwards, the RNC had launched a new web address called www.kerrypicksedwards.com, which redirects readers to a wealth of anti-Edwards material on the RNC web site.
And while Edwards can use his trial lawyer’s stiletto on Cheney for blunders in planning for the post-Saddam occupation, Cheney will likely be well-armed with verbatim quotes from Edwards in the run-up to the conflict with Iraq that show he agreed with Cheney that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States.
“Make no mistake,” Edwards said on March 19, 2003, “Saddam Hussein alone has chosen war over peace. He has defied international law rather than disarm his weapons of mass destruction. Our world will be safer when he is gone.”
In fact, when Edwards addressed the California state Democratic convention in Sacramento a few days earlier, the anti-war crowd overwhelmed him with raucous boos as he declared, “I believe Saddam Hussein is a serious threat and that he must be disarmed, including with military force if necessary. We cannot allow him to have nuclear weapons.”
As late as April 10 of that year, Edwards was still voicing support for Bush’s policy and insisting on the need for perseverance.
“A lasting victory will require more than removing Saddam from power and disarming Iraq once and for all,” he said. “Victory means winning the peace. We’ve proved that we have firepower. Now we must show that we have staying power.”
Was it “staying power,” Cheney might well ask during their debate, when Edwards voted in October 2003 against Bush’s request for $87 billion to sustain military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
'No' on $87 billion
Edwards said last October he voted “no” because “we don’t have a plan. We don’t know how long we’re going to be there. We don’t even have an estimate of the long-term costs.”
If Edwards is admittedly more telegenic and personable than Cheney, Republicans voice confidence in Cheney’s ability to best Edwards in a debate.
Republican consultant Jon McHenry, whose Alexandria, Va., firm Ayres-McHenry specializes in campaigns in the South, said, “Given his trail lawyer pedigree, Edwards is going to look good and speak well in a debate. But especially when the conversation turns to national security, it is hard to imagine him appearing to have the same breadth and depth the vice president has.”
The Cheney-Edwards debate, set for Oct. 5 in Cleveland, Ohio, will be worth paying to watch, potentially as much fun in its way as the famous Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle match in 1988.
But although the audience will be national, the effect will still be most crucial in the South.
Whatever the risks to Kerry of putting Edwards on the ticket, it will all have been worth it if it puts even a few Southern states in play.