A Debate Good Enough to Make You Want to Vote

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Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman shake hands before their debate

Their spin doctors, their surrogates, even their wives — they had everybody expecting a shootout. Instead, anyone who took the time to tune in Thursday night to the traditionally superfluous vice-presidential debate got to see a pair of confident, articulate, serious and dignified number-two men have a gentlemanly discussion — and gentlemen's disagreements — about the right direction for America and the current state of the world.

Not that Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, at a table on stage at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, left the traditional running-mate chores undone. They were surrogates for their candidates, and astonishingly effective ones. After all of Tuesday's itchy-fingered sloganeering, these two were almost translators, calmly and precisely explaining what their bosses had meant the other day. It was the traditional debate attitude that was missing — the grandstanding, the posturing, the darting search for that "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" moment. In other words, these politicians were a couple of class acts.

Ushered from issue to issue by Bernard Shaw, they covered all of them, almost. (Has there been some negotiated pact in these debates not to talk about guns?) As in Tuesday's faceoff, the core of this debate was the surplus and how to spend it — with so many policy roads leading back to it, both campaigns seem content to focus voter attention on this choice. Thursday was the annotated version. Though the totings-up of the two sides seem destined never to jibe, Cheney and Lieberman poked at each other's math dutifully but briefly. Never mind the numbers. It's a philosophical choice, best outlined in a calm, intelligent discussion. Both men, especially Cheney, showed a talent for that that their supposed better halves should envy.

Smaller, targeted, behavioral tax cuts, or a big, broad, blind one. Buy time for Social Security, or try to reform it. Increase the government's role in health care, or decrease it. Get the federal government on the education problem, or get the states to handle it. Spend more, or spend less. Stay out of Alaska, or drill it cautiously. Cheney may have encapsulated the evening's major tone shift with one comment on fixing public schools: "We think we know how to do that." Hey — we're both trying to help, and each of us thinks we know how to do it best. So just pick where you want those trillions — and our attentions — to go.

Al Gore doesn't need backing up on foreign policy; George W. Bush does. And Cheney was there for him. He backed him up convincingly on the Russians and Milosevic. And he put the best face possible on Bush's lack of head-of-state seasoning: the governor has "a track record of dealing straight with people and keeping his word," so allies and enemies alike can respect the U.S. From Cheney it made sense. The two had a nice little squabble about whose fault Saddam was, which is where Lieberman got his subtlest dig in with a story about how he and Gore supported Cheney and Bush the Elder in the Gulf War. Implication: this race contains three grownups and a late-blooming son.

Cheney did more yeoman's work on Shaw's true softball, the "how would you change the tone in Washington" question. After acknowledging there is a better way to conduct government, Cheney said, "I've seen it done differently." Back in the old days of Bush the elder? No. "I've seen it done differently in Texas." The media book on Richard "the dud" Cheney is about to take a U-turn.

At the 70-minute mark, Cheney finally bared a tooth or two, icily drum-beating "eight years of talk and no action," and Lieberman actually started to get miffed. But the brief flare-up immediately preceded the evening's pinch of genuinely funny salt. Grabbing hold of Reagan, Lieberman declared Americans better off than they were pre-Clinton and tapped Cheney's oilman stint. "I know, Dick, that you're better off than you were 8 years ago too." Replied Cheney, "And I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it." Lieberman: "I can tell my wife is out there, she wants me to go out in the private sector." Cheney: "I'm going to try to help you do that, Joe." Score it for Cheney — Lieberman's retort was lost in real live applause — but the thing was, everybody laughed. Real laughter. It was fun.

Maybe it was the format — certainly Cheney seems happier around a table than behind a podium. It could have been the opening pledge, Lieberman's let's-be-nice-tonight version of the Al Gore and Jack Kemp football-for-chlorofluorocarbons gambit, but if it was it a gambit, it paid off for everybody involved. Yes, Cheney's performance was a bit of a revelation, mostly because it really didn't look like a performance (Lieberman, fonder of the Gore catch phrases but so much gentler than Gore when he spits them out, was merely as affable as expected.) But the shocker was in the, well, civilized nature of it all.

This was probably not an election mover, as close as the race appears to be — though both presidential candidates should be thrilled with their seconds in the morning. They should be envious too, and a little embarrassed. The sole vice-presidential debate of the 2000 presidential election was a cleanser of the political palate for any voter who watched it. And if Al Gore really has irrevocably expanded the role of the vice president in governing America, that torch will be well carried no matter who is the victor in November.

It's enough to make a person want to vote again.