How Cheney Debates

What John Edwards can learn from 2000.

| Tue Oct. 5, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

As Vice-President Dick Cheney and John Edwards prepare to debate each other tonight, Democrats across the country are bracing themselves for Cheney spin. The Center for American Progress drew up a list of likely Cheney talking points tonight--including old favorites such as Cheney's obsession with a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. (Perhaps the best "gotcha" is the fact that when Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, the company filed an average of 30 lawsuits a year. So much for blaming trial lawyers for all that ails us!)

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Viewers who want to prepare for the debate might want to read through some old profiles of Dick Cheney. Josh Marshall once noted that Dick Cheney was a man of principles--"disastrous principles". Rolling Stone's profile reported that everything Dick Cheney touches turns to dust. The New Republic, on the other hand, noted that Dick Cheney had a radical foreign policy vision, and one that commanded full attention inside the White House.

But nothing will put tonight's debate into perspective like a look at Dick Cheney's 2000 debate. Four years ago, Cheney came across as the elder statesman, the genial and wise advisor to Bush who was more reasonable, more confident, and more fluent than his opponent, Joseph Lieberman. Most pundits declared Cheney the victor, hands-down. Yet Cheney only "won" in 2000 by putting forward a series of faulty statistics and misleading predictions. If there's one thing John Edwards can learn from the past, it's that you can't trust anything Dick Cheney says.

In his opening remarks in the debate, Cheney denigrated "an old way of governing ourselves or a new course, a new era, if you will, of high levels of spending, high taxes, ever more intrusive bureaucracy." The alternative, of course, turned out to be high levels of spending, deferred taxes in the form of a deficit, and ever more intrusive bureaucracy. See the difference? No? Then read on.

Cheney then outlined Bush's plan for dealing with the projected surpluses:

If you look at our proposal, we take half of the projected surplus and set it aside for Social Security. Over $2.4 trillion. We talk roughly a fourth of it for other urgent priorities such as Medicare reform and education, several of these other key programs we want to support. And we take roughly one-fourth of it and return it in the form of a tax cut to the American taxpayer.

If anyone had looked at Bush's actually proposal, they would have seen that this statement was blatantly false. In 2000, the surplus was projected to be about $4.6 trillion over the coming decade. One-fourth of that is about $1.15 trillion. The Bush tax cuts were originally projected to cost $1.6 trillion over the decade -- a half a trillion dollar difference. But it gets worse. Brookings scholars have estimated that the tax cuts will most likely cost $2 trillion in the coming decade, if made permanent, and $2.4 trillion if you count interest payments on debt. So Cheney misstated the eventual costs of the tax cuts by over $1 trillion. Do we have any reason to believe any figures that Cheney tosses out tonight?

Cheney and Lieberman then got into a wonky dispute over whose tax cut affects who, what percentage gets what percentage, and so on. Cheney finished by complaining that Lieberman's plan was too " complex," and that Republicans were looking to simplify the plan. Yet, as the Economic Policy Institute has shown, the tax code has become more complex and time-consuming under the Bush administration. Keep this in mind if Cheney starts talking about a "fairer" or "flatter" tax tonight.

Later on, Cheney was asked about energy policy, and responded with an answer only an energy lobbyist could love: "My assessment is that there is no comprehensive energy policy today. That as a nation, we are in trouble because the administration has not addressed these issues. We have the prospects of brownouts in California." And on and on. Leave aside the fact that California's brownouts were caused by Enron officials manipulating the market. Simply note that Cheney's eventual solution, of course, was to meet with energy industrialists in secret, and draft a pork-filled energy bill that embarrassed even the conservative Heritage Foundation. If Cheney talks about a "comprehensive" anything tonight, run for the hills.

Even though taxes and health care dominated the debate in 2000, Cheney still got a chance to talk about foreign policy. Cheney argued that Russia should play a greater role in keeping the peace in the Balkans, saying: "I think this is an opportunity for the United States to test President Putin of Russia. Now is the time we ought to find out whether he's committed to democracy." These days, now that President Putin is actually trying to undermine democracy in Russia, Cheney isn't much concerned about testing Putin. He did, however, manage to use the Beslan tragedy as a warning to countries who didn't help the U.S. in Iraq.

So Cheney wasn't honest about democracy. At least he was honest about peacekeeping. When asked how U.S. soldiers should be used, he said: "My preference is to deploy them as warriors. There may be occasion when it's appropriate to use them in a peacekeeping role, but I think the role ought to be limited, a time limit on it." Prescient words from an administration that failed to plan for peacekeeping in Iraq. (On the other hand, we've recently learned that Cheney knew all along how hard occupying Iraq would be; so why didn't his administration ever plan for peacekeeping?)

Cheney also emphasized the need to properly prepare our troops for combat: "When we send them without the right kind of training, when we send them poorly equipped or with equipment that's old and broken down, we put their lives at risk." Why, then, did the Bush administration delay for 15 months before sending soldiers in Iraq sufficient body armor? Why has the Bush administration

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