Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Cheney clashed repeatedly in their debate last night, making impressive-sounding but misleading statements on issues including the war in Iraq, tax cuts and each other's records, often omitting key facts along the way.
Early in the debate, Cheney snapped at Edwards, "The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." But in numerous interviews, Cheney has skated close to the line in ways that may have certainly left that impression on viewers, usually when he cited the possibility that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, met with an Iraqi official -- even after that theory was largely discredited.
On Dec. 9, 2001, Cheney said on NBC's "Meet The Press" that "it's been pretty well confirmed that [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack." On March 24, 2002, Cheney again told NBC, "We discovered . . . the allegation that one of the lead hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had, in fact, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague."
On Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney, again on "Meet the Press," said that Atta "did apparently travel to Prague. . . . We have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer a few months before the attacks on the World Trade Center." And a year ago, also on "Meet the Press," Cheney described Iraq as part of "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
In the debate, Cheney referred to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as having "an established relationship with al Qaeda" and said then-CIA Director George J. Tenet talked about "a 10-year relationship" in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What Tenet cited were several "high-level contacts" over a 10-year period, but he also said the agency reported they never led to any cooperative activity.
Edwards, for his part, asserted that the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion "and counting," an assertion that Cheney called him on. Cheney said the government has "allocated" $120 billion. As of Sept. 30, the government has spent about $120 billion, and it has allocated -- or plans to spend -- $174 billion. The tab should run as high as $200 billion in the next year once other expected supplemental spending is added.
Cheney suggested that an agreement had been reached on debt relief for Iraq, saying that "the allies have stepped forward and agreed to reduce and forgive Iraqi debt to the tune of nearly $80 billion, by one estimate." While there are reports of some sort of agreement, no plan has been made public. Cheney also said that allies had contributed $14 billion in "direct aid." Actually, $13 billion was pledged, but only $1 billion has arrived.
Cheney also said Iraqi security forces have "taken almost 50 percent of the casualties in operations in Iraq, which leaves the U.S. with 50 percent, not 90 percent." The United States does not keep track of Iraqi casualties, either civilian or in the security services. Recently, a senior U.S. official in Baghdad estimated that 750 Iraqi policemen have been killed but has no estimate of those wounded. The United States as of yesterday has had 1,061 deaths and 7,730 wounded.
Cheney and Edwards tangled repeatedly over each other's voting records, or the record of presidential challenger John F. Kerry. But many of these votes took place long ago and appear to have little relevance to current issues. Edwards cited a long list of conservative votes by Cheney, made decades ago when he was a House member from Wyoming.
Cheney said Kerry once vowed to allow a veto by the United Nations over U.S. troops. This refers to a statement made nearly 35 years ago, when Kerry gave an interview to the Harvard Crimson, 10 months after he had returned from the Vietnam War angry and disillusioned by his experiences there.
Cheney said Kerry's tax-cut rollback would hit 900,000 small businesses. This is misleading. Under Cheney's definition, a small business is any taxpayer who includes some income from a small business investment, partnership, limited liability corporation or trust. By that definition, every partner at a huge accounting firm or at the largest law firm would represent small businesses. According to IRS data, a tiny fraction of small business "S-corporations" earn enough profits to be in the top two tax brackets. Most are in the bottom two brackets.
Edwards asserted that "millionaires sitting by their swimming pool . . . pay a lower tax rate than the men and women who are receiving paychecks for serving" in Iraq. President Bush last year cut the tax rate on dividends to 15 percent, whereas most soldiers would be in a 15 percent tax bracket -- and pay an effective rate much less after taking deductions for children and mortgages.
Edwards also asserted that "the president is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that is completely unnecessary." But Bush simply endorsed such an amendment that had already been introduced on Capitol Hill.
Cheney continued to charge that Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes. But FactCheck.org -- a nonpartisan group Cheney cited during the debate as a fair data checker -- says nearly half were not for tax increases per se and many others were on procedural motions.
Both candidates promised to cut the deficit in half in four years. Independent budget experts say neither the Republican nor the Democratic ticket can make good on that promise unless it scales back funding promises made during the campaign. The Kerry health care plan, for instance, could cost as much as $1 trillion, experts say, which would eat up most if not all of the revenue generated by raising taxes on those making more than $200,000 a year. Edwards said the Democratic ticket is willing to scale back programs to make the numbers work.
Bush is digging an even deeper hole, experts say, because he has promised to partially privatize Social Security, which carries a transition cost likely to be much bigger than that of Kerry's health care plan.
Edwards asserted that "in the last four years, 1.6 million private-sector jobs have been lost." The actual number is close to 900,000 and will likely shrink further when Friday's jobs reports is released, though Bush is the first president in 72 years to preside over an overall job loss.
Edwards also misleadingly charged that the Bush administration is "for outsourcing of jobs." The Bush-Cheney ticket has not advocated sending jobs overseas, though administration officials have talked about how outsourcing can be good for the U.S. economy, a position many private economists echo.
Cheney charged that Kerry and Edwards oppose the No Child Left Behind education law, which imposes new accountability standards on public schools. Both senators voted for the law and support some modifications and billions of dollars to fully fund the education program.
Edwards claimed that part of Halliburton Corp.'s money in Iraqi contracts should have been withheld because the company is under investigation. Some funds were withheld but then paid out after an Army audit studied the matter.
Staff writers Mike Allen, Jonathan Weisman and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.