Like a lawman riding in from the Old West, GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney may have snatched his running mate from the stranglehold of policy wonk Al Gore. But the Halliburton CEO’s bravura performance in his lone debate with Democratic veep candidate Joe Lieberman could also have a far different effect: putting Shrub in the shade.
Compared with the man who would be his deputy, George W. Bush looks like a brash, untested Eastern blueblood. Cheney comes off as a seasoned leader, a man you could easily imagine as president. Voters are bound to ask, as The Washington Post does this morning, if the tickets aren’t “upside down.” Shouldn’t Cheney and Lieberman be running for the presidency, with Shrub and Li’l Al their VPs?
Last night’s debate was a love-in, with the candidates praising each other’s records and agreeing on many issues.
In detailing Bush’s approach to foreign policy, Cheney came across as far more cautious than Gore and cast Gore in the traditional mold of an expansionist, war-hawk Southern Democrat. Cheney wants to win wars, not practice nation building abroad. Unlike Gore, he takes a dim view of peacekeeping, in light of the United Nations’ adventures in Somalia and Kosovo.
The military has detested Bill Clinton from the very beginning of his administration, but Cheney clearly is the Pentagon’s man, promising to rebuild force levels and increase morale among the troops, whom Republicans portray as so despondent they can barely lift a rifle. Lieberman’s attempt to shush Cheney on the issue for fear of turning the military into a political football just made the former defense secretary look all the more authoritative and convincing, and raised the question of what the Gore-Lieberman ticket is trying to hide.
The real problem here is that military preparedness seems unlikely to stir voters as an issue. The Republican hope of invoking “rogue” states as a rationale for beefing up the military fell flat at the start of the campaign.
Bush is trying hard to carve out a middle ground to win over women voters. And Cheney repeated Bush’s assertion that the Republicans won’t try to reverse the FDA’s approval of RU-486. Gone from the Republican platform is any trace of the Christian Coalition’s crazed support for right-to-life or its hellfire hatred of gays. Lieberman’s couched opposition to gay marriage mirrors Gore’s own opportunistic shilly-shally. More surprising was the stance taken by Cheney, who has deep right-wing roots—and a gay daughter. “We ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into,” he told the nation.
On taxes, Cheney suggested Bush may be moving away from his former all-or-nothing tax cut to a position similar to that taken by John McCain in New Hampshire, where the Arizona senator proposed returning only part of the projected budget surplus to taxpayers as an outright cut, reserving most of the surplus for Social Security and Medicare. If what Cheney suggested is true, the Republican mainstream will breathe a sigh of relief, since Bush’s proposed big tax cut never appealed to the party professionals who rightly saw it as dead on arrival.
By the the end of the debate, you had to wonder not just whether the tickets are upside down, but whether Cheney should be campaigning for president with Lieberman as his VP.