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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000 / 17 Tishrei, 5761

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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The second team: It's first rate

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHAT A RELIEF, what a pleasure, what an education to hear two gentlemen debate the issues of the day -- especially after being subjected to the two club fighters who conducted Round One of the presidential debates earlier and mauled just about every number in sight beyond recognition.

It's enough to make a voter wish he could cast a ballot for a Cheney-Lieberman ticket. Both parties seem to have nominated a kangaroo ticket this year: stronger in the hind legs.

The vice-presidential debate had a novel quality about it: civility. And the differences between the two candidates' approach to government were all the sharper because of it. They differed about the tax structure and what to do about it; the soundness of the Social Security system and how to bolster it; education and how to improve it; energy policy and whether we have one; the armed forces and their proper mission and levels of readiness; what to do about abortion if anything -- and so clearly on. Yet they did so without rancor or groans or interruptions. Can this be an American election? If so, there hasn't been one like it since the Era of Good Feelings, which some of us would like to come back.

Who won? That scarcely matters. Both gentlemen remained gentlemen. And in doing so, they raised the level of public discourse, and that's what matters. Each seemed to speak not just as campaigners but for posterity.

At times the debate seemed not a contest but a collaboration as each candidate sought to appeal to a higher standard. They seemed out to appeal to the better angels of our nature, not just our immediate interests and emotional reflexes.

The evening was a great compliment to the American voter, who was addressed -- for the most part -- as if he were a thinking individual, not just a row of buttons to be pushed. The critics will find exaggerations and misstatements once each candidate's claims are put under the microscope, which is the critics' duty, but more impressive was the candidates' general appeal to reason.

If I'd been keeping score, I'd say Dick Cheney consistently outpointed his opponent. It may be just my political prejudices talking, but Cheney seemed concerned about improving the product of the country's educational system, not just in throwing money at it. His evaluation of the military, its role and readiness, struck us as far more realistic than his opponent's breast-beating.

Of course, Cheney's realism was to be expected from a former secretary of defense. Expected, too, was his emphasis on the need to encourage domestic sources of energy while protecting the environment, rather than choosing between those goals. And his resume is both more varied and more assuring than his opponent's -- yet the prospect of either man's becoming president in an emergency assured.

Cheney was even better than his opponent at repartee. Imagine that: a witty Republican, though only when he needed to be. There was nothing showy about him, yet he consistently managed to give just a bit better than he got. Sometimes a lot.

Cheney appealed not just to our political but personal preferences. In contrast to Joe Lieberman's tendency to gush, Cheney's instinctive aversion to sentimentality almost made us swoon. Some savvy fashion consultant may have decked him out in soft blue colors, but the man's mind is starched white-collar, and after eight years of a confessional Clintonism that feels our pain and takes all too many other liberties, some of us long for a solid, sensible executive, the duller the better.

Cheney reminds us of the fathers of our youth, of starched shirts and shined shoes, of pocket watches and dinner every night at the same hour before homework. Listening to the man was enough to induce a bout of nostalgia and a surge of hope for a revival of formality. How sick we've grown of presidents and presidential candidates who want to be our pal.

Cheney seems only what he is -- a sensible, middle-aged executive. And he's accomplished enough in that role to feel no need to embellish it, or to pretend he's anything but what he is. This is called self-respect. Which is just what the country may need after two four-year sugar highs in a row.

We've overdosed on the saccharine, which may be why Lieberman's sweetness, sincere as it doubtless is, turns some of us off. That's not his fault. We're just starved for simplicity, for a little polite distance and a lot less familiarity. We'd like to be treated as adults by our leaders, not chums. It would be a nice change.

Two more presidential debates are on tap and, after watching how gentlemen conduct themselves, I've started to dread both unavoidable events. It's not going to be pleasant descending to that low plain again. Let's hope the men at the top of their respective tickets learned something from their running mates' performance Thursday night: quality.

Rather than another round of Bush-Gore, we'd much rather see a debate between the old Lieberman, the one who used to sound a lot like Cheney, and this new, jazzed-up Joe who cozies up to the Hollywood elite he used to berate.

But didn't Lieberman say at the end of this debate Thursday night that he hadn't changed a single one of his positions? That may be true in the silent recesses of his conscience, but it's just as true that he doesn't talk about a lot of them any more -- about tort reform, or the wickedness of partial-birth abortion, or what's wrong with racial quotas disguised as affirmative action, or the need to experiment with school vouchers, or this administration's inadequate defense budget, or why the capital-gains tax needs to be cut, or the importance of restoring the dignity of the presidency ....

That old Lieberman seems to have been retired for the duration. I'd love to see him come back and debate this new Lieberman. I suspect that, like Cheney, he'd out-debate him.

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