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Finally, a Republican Al Gore can run against

By PHILIP GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


Al Gore has had trouble figuring out how to run against George W. Bush, charmer that he is, but the vice president thinks he knows how to take on Dick Cheney, Bush's vice presidential running mate. Cheney is made to order for the kind of attack politics Gore relishes. And Gore won't even have to stretch the truth, as he is wont to do, to score hits.

The Gore campaign believes the selection of Cheney has given it the ammunition it needs to rip the mask of political moderation from the face of the Republican ticket and portray Bush and Cheney as too far to the right to be trusted with the environment, Supreme Court nominations, the economy, energy policy, civil rights and education. Gore has been frustrated by Bush's success in presenting himself as a "different kind of Republican," whatever that means, and as a "compassionate conservative." Now Democrats will lock in on Cheney to try redefine Bush as the kind of doctrinaire conservative who turns off independent and moderate voters.

Is this presidential election likely to be decided by the candidates' vice-presidential choices? Of course not. As gleeful as Democrats say they are over Bush's choice of an oil company executive and hard-edged conservative as his vice-presidential sidekick, the Gore campaign knows that on Election Day people vote for a president, not a vice president. But that doesn't mean running mates can't alter the dynamics of a campaign or raise questions about the presidential candidates' judgment and values.

Bush said he wanted a vice president who was "fully capable of being president of the United States" should the occasion arise. Cheney is that man, the pols and the pundits agree. His resume is impressive -- former chief of staff in the Ford White House, former six-term congressman from Wyoming, former secretary of defense in the George Bush administration and most recently CEO of a Dallas-based oil engineering company. He is highly regarded in Washington by both Democrats and Republicans alike as a man of integrity and calm competence, someone who has demonstrated he can run a White House or a war against Saddam Hussein. He brings to the Republican ticket the experience and heft that the two-term Texas governor lacks, and above all, a reputation for loyalty to the boss.

If Gore has his way, however, the question will be not whether Cheney has the capacity to be president but what kind of president he would be if circumstances put him in the Oval Office. The Democrats will focus not on Cheney's resume but on his congressional votes, which in some cases were to the right of Newt Gingrich. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was not exaggerating by much when he compared Cheney's voting record to that of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Consider some of the votes he cast as a congressman in the 1980s: He voted against a non-binding resolution calling on South Africa to free Nelson Mandela, the world's most famous political prisoner at the time, and opposed economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government; he opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life was at stake; he voted against banning so-called "cop-killer" bullets and plastic firearms that can slip through metal detectors; he was one of only eight lawmakers to oppose the 1987 Clean Water Act, and he co-sponsored legislation to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Range; he even opposed Head Start for children.

Despite his voting record, Cheney has never been identified with his party's far right, mainly because his serene persona is at odds with his votes. As Cheney himself said last week, before he joined the Bush ticket "Democrats, as well as all the Republicans, thought I was a reasonably respectable fellow in the 1980s."

Neither Bush nor Cheney seems to understand why the Democrats and the press want to make a big deal out of the votes the former congressman cast nearly two decades back.

"Obviously I thought about the record," Bush told reporters last week. "This is a conservative man, and so am I."

His comment makes you wonder: Just how conservative is Bush? Even before taking Cheney as his running mate, he had expressed admiration for Anthony Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court's two most conservative justices. Is there something Bush isn't telling us?

For his part, Cheney said, "I'm generally proud of my record in the House." In retrospect, he added that he could "probably find some (votes) that I might tweak and do differently."

One wonders, how do you tweak a vote against the banning of plastic guns terrorists favor and armor-piercing bullets police officers fear, or against letting Nelson Mandela out of prison?

One vote Cheney would tweak is Head Start. He now says he supports this pre-school program and explains that he voted against it in the 1980s because "we had huge budget deficits, no money and we really had to be concerned about federal spending." As they say in Texas, that dog won't hunt. Cheney's sense of fiscal responsibility didn't keep him from voting for Ronald Reagan's huge tax cuts and defense budgets that gave us trillion-dollar deficits.

Voters are accustomed to politicians changing their views as their governing philosophy evolves over the years or as their political needs change. They can accept that if the politicians explain themselves. As Cheney noted a few days ago, Al Gore is a prime example. As a congressman from Tennessee, Gore voted for abortion restrictions and against gun-control measures. Today, Gore is running for president as a champion of gun control and unrestricted abortion rights.

With the Gore spin machine at full throttle and reporters asking Cheney to explain his votes, the Bush campaign needs to get on top of this problem before it defines the Republican ticket to Bush's disadvantage. Bush needs to say if he disagrees with any of Cheney's House votes, and Cheney owes voters a better explanation than he has offered so far. Bush may not have noticed as he prepares to go to Philadelphia for his coronation, but his bandwagon has developed a squeaky wheel. Someone had better reach for the oil can.

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