It's fair to say, Dick Cheney is not a very telegenic guy. George W. Bush mocks his shiny pate and polls show he's not a popular incumbent. But despite his physical shortcomings in the television age, without a doubt Cheney knows how to deliver a smooth, solemn speech. And when he brought his authoritative charm to the table at JB's Restaurant last Thursday, the pre-selected crowd was both respectful and engaged.
Billed as a roundtable discussion, the vice president's motorcade dropped him at the front door, then he passed by the buffet line pausing for photos and admiring handshakes from a shop full of Bush-Cheney '04 volunteers, and finally landed in a room in the rear of the restaurant for a cup of coffee and chat with a dozen New Mexicans.
"We get together and we try to talk informally and we try to ignore the press," Cheney said during introductions at the table, where five OB-GYNs sat among a similar number of teachers and a few veterans, all supporters of the Republican ticket. The local and national press entourage were compressed in a corner just a few feet away.
Cheney began with a clear, familiar outline of campaign talking points, saying our nation is at a point "where we will set the course for the country over the next 30 to 40 years."
The most important shift after 9-11 was to "improve our defenses" at home, he said, adding, "We did that with the PATRIOT Act." Cheney cited a threat of "terrorist cells living in our own cities," as well as internationally, who are trying to obtain nuclear weapons. In the broader war against terrorists, Cheney said al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan have been "shut down" and 10 million new voters have been registered since the Taliban's removal. The country's new constitution will be ready by the end of the year, he said. And then Cheney, without mentioning Osama bin Laden, said Afghanistan is "no longer a safe haven for the terrorists that attacked us."
Does this mean Osama bin Laden has been captured? Or has he moved to Pakistan? None of the JB's patrons raised these questions, and I held my tongue, fearing that kind of probing journalism, these days, might find me locked in a Secret Service full nelson.
Without missing a beat, then to Iraq, where Cheney said Saddam Hussein had a track record for providing a "safe haven" and "sanctuary for terror," including forging a "relationship with the al Qaeda organization." This claim has been refuted most notably by Secretary of State Colin Powell and by countless press reports; however, it has remained one of the vice president's steadfast talking points.
As for the current state of affairs in Iraq, where a democratic government is presently unattainable due to a growing guerilla insurgency, Cheney asked rhetorically, "Why isn't it all fixed now?" He answered by comparing the Iraqi transition to the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, when "it took 13 years to get the U.S. government in place." Cheney said, therefore, Americans "shouldn't be surprised if there were bumps along the way." He then lauded the efforts of the U.S. military as "remarkable" and "phenomenal."
The remainder of his opening salvo was directed toward the flip-flopper theme cast upon Democratic rival John Kerry. "The great mystery of the campaign is what policy John Kerry will pursue," said Cheney, echoing a line from the Republican convention that filled the room with laughter. In contrast, George W. Bush sticks to decisions "through thick or thin," he said.
Cheney then segued into the primary discussion topic, medical liability reform, suggesting, as the president has done during his campaign swings over the past two weeks, that malpractice insurance rates are at the heart of America's health care troubles.
Anthony Levatino, an OB-GYN, lamented his practice, which employs four of the seven gynecologists in Las Cruces, can barely make payroll due to rising expenses. Levatino said his business spends $300,000 annually in insurance premiums, including malpractice insurance, while all other operating expenses, including rent and utilities, have increased annually over the past four years as well.
Cheney responded that trial lawyers are to blame. He said "lawsuit abuse" effects more than the medical industry, citing asbestos lawsuits as another example, though not mentioning a Halliburton subsidiary specifically involved in such a lawsuit that Cheney purchased while acting as the company CEO.
Cheney said the Bush administration has a "robust set of options and proposals out there" to address the health care needs of Americans, including "health savings accounts" and tax credits for small businesses.
After the meeting, Levatino told the Alibi his income has dropped over the past four years, because he can't raise his rates to offset rising costs due to price restrictions imposed by HMOs, third party insurance companies and Medicaid.
"It's not sharing the pain equally," he said, adding that two years ago 60 percent of his patients paid with private insurance, and 40 percent paid with Medicaid, and today that number has been inverted.
When asked if he blames the Bush administration for the bad news, since the trend happened during their term in office, Levatino said, "What do you want me to do, vote for John Edwards?" Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, a North Carolina Senator, became a millionaire as a private attorney representing plaintiffs in malpractice lawsuits.
The other subject of the day focused on education, namely the No Child Left Behind Act. None of the educators present spoke disparagingly of the bill. Gwen Griscom, a math teacher at El Dorado High School, said the controversial law is "one topic in every school, everyday in the nation." Griscom said the plan needs time to be implemented and then reviewed before it can be fairly criticized. Cheney seized the moment to laud the bill's call for standardized testing and allowing parents to remove kids from failing schools as primary ways to "establish accountability."
"Fact is, we've increased spending by 49 percent in the last four years," Cheney said, but, "a lot of states haven't spent it."
The vice president graciously thanked his partisan audience for attending and left one hour after his arrival, without taking questions from the press.
The local media moved in to interview the roundtable participants, and as Cheney passed the buffet line on his way out, some folks took his picture with disposable cameras, and some pounded on the tables chanting, "Four more years!"
Hours later, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was greeted by an estimated crowd of 8,000 supporters at Phil Chacon Park in the Southeast Heights. Accompanied by Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Rep. Tom Udall and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Kerry deplored President Bush's record much the same way he did the next morning at an invite-only Town Hall meeting at Manzano Mesa community center.
Gen. Clark introduced Kerry Thursday night and retired Lt. Gen. Ed Baca, a Vietnam veteran and former head of the New Mexico National Guard, introduced him to the Manzano Mesa crowd of about 300 on Friday morning, emphasizing an obvious theme Kerry is going champion for the reminder of the campaign—military service.
Lt. Gen. Baca, one of six generals and two admirals who took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in support of Kerry, said he was concerned about national security while honoring Kerry's status as a veteran who served in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. The New Mexico Democratic Party, meanwhile, slung mud at the vice president in a press release issued within hours after Cheney's departure entitled, "Deferment Dick to Duck Difficulties at Coffee Klatch."
Addressing the crowd, Lt. Gen. Baca highlighted his own 40-year military career, noted his four children serving in the armed forces and closed his introduction, saying, "Put Sen. Kerry in there so he can be their Commander in Chief. He would never put them in harms way unless it's the absolute last resort."
So with national security at the forefront, Kerry—looking like a cross between Jay Leno and Abe Lincoln—took to the podium and sounded a familiar sentiment from his opponent. "It's a privilege to talk about what's in my heart," Kerry said, before elaborating on one of his campaign slogans: "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World."
"Use good common sense and values of Americans to measure where you are today and where you think we could be," said Kerry. "I believe we could have done better on almost every choice this president has made."
He went on attacking Bush's record, saying the president "always makes an excuse" for "1.6 million lost jobs in last four years" and accused the administration of encouraging corporations to outsource jobs to developing countries.
Kerry devoted most of his introduction to Iraq, calling the war "the most catastrophic choice the president has made" and castigating the administration for failing to build an international coalition.
Kerry said Bush "put troops in harms way without a clear understanding of their mission," and later added: "Ninety percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost is not a coalition."
Seizing on recent statements by the president proclaiming Iraq is making progress thanks to a successful strategy, Kerry said: "Is he talking about the same war the rest of us are talking about?" The senator also accused the Bush administration of planning a "backdoor draft of reservists" after the election.
He criticized Vice President Cheney for receiving compensation from Halliburton while in office and while the company "has been engaging in massive overcharging," and promised to fire the corporation from Iraqi operations, if elected. "We need a Commander in Chief who will put the interest of troops and taxpayers ahead of big money friends," said Kerry to loud applause.
On to domestic policy, Kerry rattled off a litany of gloomy statistics, saying in four years health care costs have increased by 50 percent, while prescription drugs, gasoline and college education costs went up by 30 percent. Average wages have decreased during the same period, he said, promising he and running mate John Edwards "are going to fix that," but not getting into much detail how.
"There is nothing conservative these guys are doing with fiscal policy," Kerry said. "We need to restore fiscal responsibility."
Kerry proclaimed that nobody in the room signed a loyalty oath, nor were any questions screened. "You are free to ask what you want, like this is America," he said.
And the first question was a bit of a hardball. A silver-haired man praised Kerry's Swift boat days and then accused the Congress of being "owned by Israel" and wanted to know what Kerry was going to do to protect the Palestinians.
Kerry seemed to deflect the question at first, talking about regaining moral authority in the world and changing our policy in the Middle East as a whole. He digressed further, saying he cared less about personal attacks on his military record than the "personal attack on Americans" in the form of lies about Iraq. The gentleman reminded him his question involved the Palestinians, and Kerry shot back, "Well, I disagree with you, I'm not subservient to Israel," and then Kerry said he would fight for Israel's security and a freestanding Palestinian territory, which the audience applauded.
A 23-year-old man wearing a League of Conservation Voters T-shirt said he was going door-to-door on Kerry's behalf and said people most often wanted to know about his position on Iraq. "What should I tell them?" the man said.
Kerry took off on broadly criticizing the Bush environmental record first and, after the young man looked disappointed by the digression, finally said the United States needs to make the Iraq war "a global effort" by convincing Arab and European nations to share the cost and military presence. "Statesmanship and leadership without hubris," Kerry said, "and bring people to the table, protect our troops and bring them home."
In other words, without any concise detail coming from either presidential candidate, the current Iraq situation seems to have both sides befuddled. Meanwhile, as Cheney sat at JB's, the morning headline in USA Today read: "Report for Bush Provides Bleak Assessment for Iraq." The article identified a classified security document compiled by the National Intelligence Council that offered a deeply pessimistic outlook for Iraq, including the possibility of civil war in the near future. Neither Kerry nor Cheney mentioned this report during their stops here.
More questions ensued on a host of issues, including social security, veterans affairs and Indian health services, then Gov. Bill Richardson offered parting words, admonishing folks to get active in the campaign and telling Kerry not to forget New Mexico after he gets elected. Sen. Kerry and Gov. Richardson then left the building without taking questions from the press; U2's "Beautiful Day" blared from the sound system.