Second-Class Turnaround


Joe Lieberman neglected to thank God in his ridiculous opening statement last night. He should have. As it turned out, Lieberman needed His help.

Dick Cheney not only out dressed and out gesticulated Lieberman, but on issue after issue, if Cheney didn't nail Lieberman outright (as he certainly did on taxes and the military), he masterfully deflected questions that one might expect to vex a lesser conservative from Wyoming. In a plot twist worthy of one of Edgar Allan Poe's funny-scary tales of mystery and imagination, it may not be the moderate from Texas, but the conservative from Wyoming who is best able to marry the compassionate to the conservative.

On racial profiling, for instance, Lieberman called for more government oversight of every interaction among diverse individuals, but never quite explained how the government can solve the problem. Cheney tried to put himself in the shoes of a black man, admitting that he never fully could, but that we must work harder to achieve equality.

Gay marriage, for Cheney, famously the father of a lesbian daughter, became an issue of personal freedom. "We live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everybody," he said, although stopping pathetically short, as did Lieberman, of saying it meant freedom to have a state-sanctioned marriage. The former defense secretary also stopped short of invoking his gay daughter, which would have been very rhetorically effective. (Rumors abound that the master of exploit-a-family-member politics, Al Gore, is attempting to acquire a gay child on the private adoption market.)

And Cheney deftly turned the issue of the so-called gender pay gap into an issue of Gore's bossy tax policy. When asked the topic, Lieberman resorted to liberal cant, saying that women in comparable jobs only earn $.72 for every dollar a man earns, which is a Gore-like exaggeration. As far back as the mid-1990s, men and women with the same years of education in the same disciplines working in similar jobs for comparable tenures have enjoyed a wage ratio that is much closer to par than it is to $.72.

Truth, of course, has little utility in political debates. Cheney understands this, which is why he says "frankly" so much, a Washington tic that indicates one is about to spin. He therefore masterfully turned the pay gap issue into an issue of Gore's Better Living Through Tax Credits philosophy, pointing out that Gore's plans pay women to send their children to day care but not to stay at home and take care of them. (Lieberman challenged this, pointing to a $500 tax credit for stay at home moms. But this credit is only good for infants less than one year old.)

"Our plans are for the future and focus very much on giving as much control as we can to individual Americans, be they men or women, be they single or married, as much control as possible over their own lives," said Cheney. "We want to make certain that the American people have the ability to keep more of what they earn and then they get to decide how to spend it." To be sure, the Bush-Cheney ticket's apparent tolerance for lifestyle diversity has real and obvious limits—beyond the gay marriage issue, don't bother spending any of their tax cut on marijuana (medical or otherwise), or the new Eminem CD.

Cheney was just short of brilliant on Bush's tax and Social Security policies, framing both in terms of individual choice and not getting bogged down in the numbers. We trust him on Social Security because, when not decked out in his blue on blue shirt and tie combination, he looks like he has first hand familiarity with the program. I trust him on the tax policy not only because I like the gist of what he's saying, but also because he explains it in compelling terms.

"Bernie, you have to be a CPA to understand what he just said," Cheney retorted after Lieberman jabbered about a myriad "exciting" tax credit programs he and Gore would inflict on us. "It is a classic example of wanting to have a program, in this case a tax program, that will in fact direct people to live their lives in certain ways rather than empowering them to make decisions themselves. It's a big difference between us. They like tax credits. We like tax reform and tax cuts."

Lines like these prompted CNN commentators after the debate to speak not of Bush's huge tax plan, but to ask what Lieberman and Gore can do to explain their plan better.

That's quite a turnaround. The polls will soon tell us if voters agree.