Ballot Box

The New Dick Cheney

The stunning moment in last night’s debate came about three-quarters of the way through, when Bernard Shaw asked the vice-presidential nominees whether “a male who loves a male and a female who loves a female” should have the same constitutional rights as others. Joe Lieberman responded first, giving the kind of thoughtful answer he is known for, one consistent with Al Gore’s stated policy in favor of some form of same-sex partnership with legal protection. Lieberman said that while he supported “the traditional notion of marriage as being limited to a heterosexual couple,” his mind was open to doing something to address the unfairness experienced by gay couples. Then Cheney took his turn. Here is what he said in full:

This is a tough one, Bernie. The fact of the matter is we live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody. We shouldn’t be able to choose and say you get to live free and you don’t. That means people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It’s no one’s business in terms of regulating behavior in that regard. The next step then, of course, is the question you ask of whether or not there ought to be some kind of official sanction of the relationships or if they should be treated the same as a traditional marriage. That’s a tougher problem. That’s not a slam-dunk. The fact of the matter is that matter is regulated by the states. I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that’s appropriate. I don’t think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area. 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 there ought to be legal sanction of those relationships. I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into.

To paraphrase, Cheney said that he is not sure whether marriage or some equivalent status ought to be open to gay men and lesbians, and it’s fine for states to have their own policies about it. In saying this, Cheney not only broke with the guy at the head of his own ticket, who has explicitly rejected “civil unions” of the type ratified by the Vermont Legislature in April. He actually went further than Lieberman, who affirmed the idea of “traditional marriage” as something that should remain closed to gay couples. We’ll see whether Cheney corrects himself when Pat Robertson threatens a walkout from the GOP. But for now, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, one chosen in part because of his appeal to hard-right social conservatives, has come out as an agnostic on gay marriage!

What’s going on here? I expect that the weight of Cheney’s personal contradiction on the issue, which Andrew Sullivan wrote eloquently about in the New Republic a couple of months ago, finally became too much for him to manage. Cheney’s daughter Mary is openly gay and lives in a committed relationship with someone she calls her “life partner.” She is also one of her dad’s closest political advisers and helped prepare him for the debate. Afterward, Mary Cheney was on the stage hugging her father. I expect she likes the new Dick Cheney better than the old Dick Cheney.

My other favorite moment came when Shaw told the candidates, “Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, you are black for this question.” The question was how either man would feel if the police stopped him in an act of racial profiling. As Lieberman responded, the notion of a black Dick Cheney boggled minds across America. Cheney couldn’t quite process the premise either. “Bernie, I would like to answer your question to the best of my ability,” he said when his turn came, “but I don’t think I can understand fully what it would be like.” That was a very good answer.

Cheney, I thought, was impressive in almost every respect. As a debater he is low-key and even-tempered but surprisingly quick-witted. When the Borsch-belt king of the Senate tried to rib him about how much money he made at Halliburton, Cheney flipped his opponent with a deft bit of jujitsu. Lieberman unleashed a canned line about how his wife, Hadassah, would probably like him go into the private sector the way Cheney did; “I’ll help you do that, Joe,” the Republican shot back, superbly.

Cheney also made a much clearer case for Bush and his policies than Bush himself did on Tuesday evening. Where Bush sounded like a confused apologist for giving a break to the rich, Cheney sounded like someone animated by political principle. After Lieberman went into a long spiel about all the complicated different benefits available under the Democratic tax plan, Cheney responded, “You have to be a CPA to understand what he just said.” Then the former defense secretary went on to lucidly delineate the philosophical divide between the two sides. “It is a big difference between us,” Cheney said. “They like tax credits, we like tax reform and tax cuts.”

They like tax credits, we like tax reform and tax cuts. Why couldn’t Bush ever make it so clear and simple? Cheney also did an effective job cleaning up his teammate’s other goofs. On the election in Serbia, Cheney noted that the Clinton administration had asked Russia to help put pressure on Slobodan Milosevic–a suggestion that Gore ridiculed Bush for raising. Cheney also untangled Bush’s seeming contradiction on whether he would try to ban the abortion pill RU-486. Bush was declining only to try to overrule the FDA’s decision that the drug was safe, not saying he wouldn’t challenge the abortion pill on other grounds.

Lieberman was an antidote to Gore in a completely different way. He didn’t try to salvage his running mate from his gratuitous fibs, which would have been impossible. But Lieberman’s alkaline presence neutralized the acid in the vice president’s performance. Gore can sound fake even when he’s being sincere. Lieberman is just the opposite; he comes across as warm and genuine even when he’s saying something preposterous.

In total contrast to Tuesday night’s debate, the two candidates seemed to actually enjoy each other’s company. It was “Joe” and “Dick” and “Bernie” all evening. The hottest it ever got was near the end, when Shaw goaded the Republican into saying, “I like the old Joe Lieberman better than I do the new Joe Lieberman.” But even this seemed more in the nature of joshing among buddies than even mild negative campaigning. By the end, it seemed as if a massive epidemic of Washington pal syndrome had broken out in Kentucky. When the show was over, the two men nearly embraced and didn’t seem to want to be separated.

What the vice-presidential debate did was confirm the wisdom of both choices. In selecting their running mates, both candidates found what they lacked, Wizard of Oz-style. By picking Lieberman, Gore got a heart. In choosing Cheney, Bush got a brain.