- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

It wasn’t the kind of line Sen. Lloyd Bentsen used on Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate, but it was close. In Tuesday night’s debate, Vice President Dick Cheney seriously damaged Sen. John Edwards’ moral claim on issues — from the war in Iraq, to health care — when he observed Mr. Edwards’ record in the Senate was “not very distinguished.”

Mr. Cheney said Mr. Edwards had “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.”

Then there was this devastating line from the vice president: “In my capacity as vice president, I am the president of the 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.” (Mr. Cheney referred to having never met Mr. Edwards on Capitol Hill.)

This is the way real debaters deconstruct the credibility of their opponents. The vice president also injected a subject missing from the first presidential debate: the Senate record of John Kerry and Mr. Edwards. Mr. Cheney said to Mr. Edwards, “Your rhetoric, senator, would be a lot more credible if there was a record to back it up. There isn’t.” That’s the way debates are won and Mr. Cheney won this one. Big time.

Mr. Edwards kept repeating he and Mr. Kerry have “credibility” and claimed they can deal with the Iraq war and build coalitions better than can Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. The vice president undermined that argument by noting how many sides the Democratic nominees have taken. And he accused Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards of the crassest political opportunism when he noted that during the primaries Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards were on record as supporting the Iraq war but suddenly reversed course and began criticizing the war.

“I couldn’t figure out why that happened initially,” Mr. Cheney said. “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?”

Mr. Cheney repeatedly noted Mr. Kerry’s seemingly pragmatic approach to issues and said, “If you look at his record, he doesn’t display the qualities of somebody who has conviction.”

On domestic issues, Mr. Cheney was weakest on poverty and same-sex “marriage.” He said jobs were the main answer to poverty. In reality, it is stable two-parent homes with a mother and father that constitute the best antipoverty program. Though Mr. Cheney says he supports the president’s policy in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex “marriage,” he repeated his contention people should be allowed to live as they wish. That’s a formula for social and cultural chaos and the vice president allowed his personal situation with a lesbian daughter to dictate his judgment for the entire country.

Mr. Edwards was on shaky ground when he claimed no state has ever been forced to accept a marriage from another state. But with the courts dictating policy and overriding the will of voters and their elected representatives, homosexual rights advocates mean to impose same-sex “marriage” on every state, regardless of what those states want.

The key to any debate is not to play too much defense, but to stay on offense. This, both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Edwards did. The vice president did it far more effectively and his experience as a debater and a seasoned leader in government came through in contrast to Mr. Edwards’ youth and inexperience.

When moderator Gwen Ifill asked both men what qualifications they had to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Mr. Cheney spoke of serving four presidents and long years in government. Mr. Edwards spoke about traveling around the world and meeting leaders. It was no contest.

President Bush could and should learn from his vice president’s performance. This isn’t beanbag, and there will be no excuse if Mr. Bush doesn’t engage and disarm John Kerry in their second debate tonight.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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