Cheney Finds His Own 'Message': The Military

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GOP vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney talks about military readiness

Dick Cheney was supposed to be talking about education, but he's been having a tough week. So on the first all-on-message day in some time — while George Bush beat the drum on college aid in Pennsylvania and Al Gore and Joe Lieberman (still traveling together) hit health care in Oregon — Cheney arrived Wednesday in Atlanta with his new direction, an easy one for the ex-defense secretary: bash the military. The Clinton/Gore military, that is.

"To point out that our military has been overextended, taken for granted, and neglected — that is no criticism of the military," said Cheney, ascribing all recent military successes to the groundwork of Reagan and George Bush Sr. "That is a criticism of a president and a vice president, and the record they have built together." He even came with what Regis Philbin likes to call a lifeline, directing reporters to call Colin Powell if they didn't believe Cheney. (Said a non-strident Powell: "I agree with his view.")

Never mind that military unreadiness — and the alarmist tone Cheney and Bush are sounding on it — is starting to look like about as enticing a campaign issue as that $1.3 trillion tax cut. After a decade of U.S. military successes almost as overwhelming as its economic ones, it's a crisis voters weren't particularly aware of, and a solution they aren't particularly crying for. But never mind that; for Cheney, it sure beats heat over executive pay packages.

And the low-key (make that hardly visible) running mate even got off a good one at the expense of his opposite, who's been making Cheney look like the dud of the slate. "One observer of the military," Cheney said Wednesday, "had this to say last year: 'Our military faces readiness problems,' he cautioned, 'including falling recruitment, and retention in critical skill areas; aging equipment that costs more to keep operating at acceptable levels of reliability; a need for more support services for a force with a high percentage of married personnel; and frequent deployments.' "

"That is a fair summary of the problem," Cheney said, "and it came from Senator Joseph Lieberman."

But this isn't 1980, when stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis had America feeling embarrassed and ready for a fist-pounder like Ronald Reagan to replace Jimmy Carter. Since the arrival of the God-spouting Lieberman (and possibly since that nostalgic Clinton valedictory in L.A.) has seemingly taken "restore the honor and decency of the White House" off voters' urgent to-do list, Bush and Cheney have been looking for a crusade, a reason for voters to kick Al Gore out of Washington and change the locks.

They haven't found one yet. But the military is at least a credible issue for Cheney, if he doesn't oversell it (which he seems wont to do). And if it helps this running mate find his stride — one of Cheney's big problems so far is that he seems to want to give straight answers on TV, which inevitable leads to adjectives like "visibly frustrated" in the newspapers — this detour into matters military will be well worth it for a campaign that lately seems to have lost its true north.