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Running mates politely discuss policy

Even when Cheney and Lieberman disagreed strongly, they remained cordial.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


The debate between the Democrat Joe Lieberman and the Republican Dick Cheney was far more straightforward, respectful and less confusing than the faceoff two nights earlier between presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Instead of trading accusations and questioning their opponent's credibility -- as Bush and Gore did -- Cheney and Lieberman discussed the issues calmly and carefully, extolling the virtues of bringing bipartisanship to Washington, trading personal jokes and relying on phrases such as "with all due respect."

Of course, the result was perhaps less exciting. But the lack of fireworks enabled both men to accomplish what was surely their major goal: to reassure voters that they are an asset to their tickets, not a liability.

It wasn't until the moderator, Bernard Shaw, invited Cheney to criticize Lieberman that the tone turned sour. Although Cheney did not pass up the opportunity, he first noted: "We've been trying very hard to keep this on a high plane."

Cheney then accused his opponent of losing the "depth of commitment" to some issues since being chosen by Gore. Specifically, he said Lieberman has been soft-pedaling his earlier criticism of the entertainment industry in exchange for political contributions.

Lieberman did not get a similar opportunity to criticize Cheney. But he defended himself, saying that he has been a "consistent crusader" against violence and sex in movies and music.

On a long list of issues including Social Security, taxes, military readiness, oil prices and government spending, the vice presidential candidates picked up the debate where Gore and Bush left off.

Lieberman sought to answer Bush's contention that the Clinton-Gore administration had done little to solve important problems in the past eight years. He conceded that Democrats had made a lot of promises eight years ago but said they had had delivered on them.

"Did Al Gore make promises in 1992?" Lieberman asked. "Absolutely. Did he deliver? Big time -- let me put it that way."

Those were the same words Cheney had used a month ago to respond to Bush's off-color, private remark about a New York Times reporter -- an exchange that was accidentally broadcast.

Lieberman then proceeded to offer a long list of economic statistics that have improved under the Democrats. And then Lieberman asked Ronald Reagan's question of 1980: "Are you better off today than you were eight years ago? Most people would say, "Yes.'

"And I'm pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers, that you're better off than you were eight years ago, too."

That brought a laugh as Cheney replied, "I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it."

When Lieberman repeated Gore's charge that the proposed Republican tax cut would give more to the richest 1 percent of Americans than all the money the Democrats would devote to new programs, Cheney recoiled. He asserted that the cost of Gore's campaign promises would exceed revenue by $900-billion.

Like Bush, Cheney also criticized the Democrats for proposing only targeted tax cuts that would exclude an estimated 50-million Americans who did not qualify. He said their plan would give relief only to those who would "live your life the way they want you to live your life."

Lieberman replied that the number 50-million was "absolutely wrong," and based on an economic plan that preceded the current one. He denied that the Gore plan would put the budget into deficit and noted that Gore's plan specifically sets aside an extra $300-billion to be unspent -- just in case the surplus is not as big as the projected.

The two men disagreed sharply, as Gore and Bush did, over the current readiness of the military. Cheney, a former defense secretary, said the services are "overcommitted and under-resourced."

Lieberman not only defended the military, but added: "It's not good for our military, to run them down in a partisan debate."

When Cheney was asked whether the U.S. military might someday have to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and "take him out," he replied: "We might have no other choice." Once again, Lieberman cautioned: "I don't think a political campaign is the place to declare what we will do."

Cheney was embarrassed when Shaw asked him why he supported drilling for oil in the environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska but not in the treasured regions of his home state of Wyoming. He responded with a joke: "It just shows I've got a balanced approach." The audience laughed.

Lieberman, on the other hand, said he could not support oil exploration in the Arctic. Instead, he said, the nation could conserve the same amount of oil by simply using available technology to get 3 more miles per gallon from gasoline.

Like doctors, vice presidential candidates make a promise to "first, do no harm." And on that goal, they both succeeded.

In many ways, Cheney got more of the breaks than Lieberman. Not only was he invited to criticize his opponent directly, but Shaw failed to direct a question about gay rights to Cheney that was intended for him. The mistake allowed Cheney to avoid having to address the often-asked question of how he feels about having a gay daughter.

Both men hedged on gay marriage.

"My mind is open to taking some action that will address those elements of unfairness while respecting the traditional religious and civil institution of marriage," Lieberman said.

Likewise, Cheney said it was a matter to be regulated by the states, not the federal government. He added: "I try to be open minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships. And like Joe, I'm also wrestling with the extent to which they ought to be legal sanction of those relationships."

The 90-minute debate was held at Centre College here and is the only time during the election season the vice presidential candidates are scheduled to meet.

Gore and Bush will debate two more times.

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