Sen. John Edwards accused the Bush administration Tuesday night of bungling the war in Iraq and presiding over a historic loss of jobs. “Your facts are just wrong,” Vice President Dick Cheney shot back in a crackling campaign debate.
In a clash at close quarters, Edwards accused Cheney of “not being straight” with the American people about the war. He said U.S. casualties are rising monthly and the United States is bearing 90 percent of the cost and suffering 90 percent of the dead and wounded.
Cheney promptly challenged those figures, saying the Iraqi security forces had taken nearly half of the casualties.
“For you to demean their sacrifice is beyond the pale,” he said to Edwards seated a few feet away.
“Oh, I’m not,” Edwards protested before the vice president cut him off.
The debate format encouraged give-and-take, and neither the vice president nor Sen. John Kerry’s running mate shrunk from the task.
In a jab at the Bush-Cheney campaign’s claim on experience, Edwards said, “Mr. Vice President, I don’t think the country can take four more years of this type of experience.”
In rebuttal to Edwards’ charges on the war, Cheney repeatedly criticized the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, for shifting positions on the conflict.
On domestic issues, Edwards said Bush has presided over a loss of jobs during his administration — the first president to do so since Herbert Hoover sat in the White House. He also said more Americans are in poverty, and living without health insurance, than when the president took the oath of office in 2001.
But Cheney said jobs are being created, and said a Kerry-Edwards administration would seek to raise taxes.
Edwards denied that even before the vice president said it, noting that the Democratic proposal calls for rolling back the Bush tax cuts on only those earning $200,000 or more a year.
Gay marriage stances
Cheney, whose daughter, Mary, is a lesbian, spoke supportively about gay relationships and said that “people ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want.” At the same time, Bush supports passage of a constitutional marriage to ban gay marriage, and Cheney said, “He sets policy for this administration, and I support him.”
“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman and so does John Kerry,” Edwards said. But, he added, “We should not use the Constitution to divide this country.”
Edwards also charged that Cheney, as the chief executive officer of Halliburton, pushed to lift U.S. sanctions against Iran, did business with countries that were “sworn enemies of the United States,” and that Halliburton paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false information “just like Enron and Ken Lay,” the now indicted former chief.
Cheney accused Edwards of “trying to throw up a smoke screen” and said “there’s no substance to the charges.”
Kerry and Edwards have sought to link Cheney to Halliburton as a symbol of corporate greed and insider connections. Halliburton has reported making more than $7.6 billion so far from U.S. government contracts in Iraq.
The Republican said Kerry voted to authorize the war, then voted against an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Democratic primary politics were at work at that point. Cheney, 63, and Edwards, 51, sat a few feet apart around a semicircular table on a stage at Case Western Reserve University. Gwen Ifill of PBS, moderator for the evening, faced them.
It was the only debate of the campaign for Cheney and his Democratic opponent.
Kerry and Bush debated for 90 minutes last week. Kerry has gained ground in the polls in the days since, narrowing the gap with the president in some nationwide surveys and moving into a statistical tie in others.
Bush and Kerry will debate twice more, on Friday in St. Louis and Oct. 13 in Arizona.