Tonight, John Edwards and Dick Cheney will debate for the first and last time. The vice presidential debate in Cleveland will give both candidates a chance to make a case for their presidential running mates.
But the debate offers Edwards an even greater opportunity. The vice presidential debate will allow John Edwards to hold up Dick Cheney as the personification of what is wrong with the Bush administration. Edwards can use Cheney to launch a devastating attack on an administration that engages in corporate corruption and armchair militarism while cursing off (sometimes literally) anyone who disagrees with it.
When it comes to corporate corruption, Vice President Dick Cheney is the largest target for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Cheney is the former CEO of Haliburton and is still receiving monetary compensation from that company. Coincidentally, Haliburton has procured lucrative contracts in Iraq for that company, recently making them the number one private contractor for the United States Army. In fact, Haliburton received a no-bid contract for some of its business in Iraq after negotiations with none other than Cheney's Chief of Staff, Lewis Libby.
The Haliburton connection is a salient critique for three reasons. One, it is a stain that is far closer to the Oval Office than, say, the Abu Ghraib scandal. With Abu Ghraib, the connection to the President was convoluted enough to allow Bush to separate himself from Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. With Haliburton, Bush would be hard pressed to justify why his Vice President's top deputy was helping the Vice President's former company engage in war profiteering.
Moreover, the Haliburton connection raises the criticism that American soldiers are being held in Iraq to help defend Haliburton's profit-making operations, which leads us to suggest that the only thing Bush had planned for winning the peace was winning a contract for Cheney's company.
Finally, Haliburton's contracts in Iraq go to the heart of the argument against the administration's motives for the invasion in the first place. Whether it was oil or revenge for the first George or WMD, the motives for going to war against Iraq have always been muddled. Now, Bush is using the sole argument that Iraq was one battle in the greater war on terror. Yet the idea that the Bush administration could be making a profit off of the war flies in the face of that justification.
Edwards could also use tonight's debate to accuse Cheney of being what many top officials in the administration are: an armchair warriora man who never volunteered for combat, but who has no problem sending others off to war. Like Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and others, Cheney's political career has been marked by an affinity for making war. Like President Bush, Cheney as a young man did everything he could to avoid going to Vietnam.
No one can blame Cheney for not wanting to go then, but given that past, we can and should blame him for being so eager to send others now. And we should blame him for calling those who are against the war "cowards" when forty years ago, he avoided the war in Vietnam with five draft deferments.
By painting the administration as full of trigger-happy boy commandos who have no personal experience in combat, Edwards could also depict the entire administration as far too eager to put Americans in harm's waya depiction that would be disastrous to a campaign relying on security as its central issue.
Finally, Edwards could attack Cheney for the way in which the administration as a whole has conducted the business of the nation for the past four years. Cursing out a United States senator is only the most obvious example. Cheney embodies the go-it-alone, negative nature of the Bush administration and Edwards would do his running mate a big favor by pointing that out to the American people.
But Edwards offers a devastating attack just by showing up. Edwards himself is one of the greatest arguments against Dick Cheney. While Cheney is old and tired, Edwards is young and energetic. While Cheney is constantly talking about fear (even going so far to say that if Kerry is elected, the terrorists will be more likely to attack after the election), Edwards has built his national image as a voice of hope.
Moreover, Edwards escapes the two critiques of Cheney as a corporate puppet and a hypocritical armchair warrior. Edwards was too young to even come close to serving in Vietnam, and he has refused to use the bellicose language that Cheney enjoys. Not only does Edwards have no ties with corporate greed, he has built his career on fighting that corporate greed for average Americans. No matter how much CEOs dislike the idea of a trial lawyer as Vice President, the average voter does not see Edwards' choice of career as a negative. In fact, many Americans see it as a positive.
If Edwards can make a case that Cheney is the embodiment of the administration's corporate corruption, armchair militarism, and go-it-alone negativism, and do it all with his southern charm and boyish grin, the Bush campaign will regret picking Dick.