MISSING: Dick Cheney, Right-Wing Stalwart

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"I liked the old Joe Lieberman better than the new Joe Lieberman," Dick Cheney mused during Thursday night's vice-presidential debate. He was referring to his opponent’s ostensible flip-flop on Hollywood-sponsored violence — mourning, presumably, the replacement of crusader Lieberman with fundraiser Lieberman.

It was a fair criticism, a punch couched in a compliment. But there’s a catch: Lieberman isn’t the only chameleon in this race.

Thursday night, as the debate wrapped up, eyebrows shot up in America’s conservative enclaves. Who was this guy sitting across the table from Lieberman? This guy who’s going to stand by the FDA’s approval of RU-486? Who’s actually torn over the issue of gay and lesbian marriages? And who’s preaching "tolerance and acceptance" at every turn?

This was not the man the right-wing old guard has come to know and love. Where was the moral hard-line? Where was the unwavering conviction?

Where, in all this singularly unsettling moderation, was the old Dick Cheney?

Unfortunately for his dyed-in-the-wool conservative fans, that Dick Cheney has gone underground. And he’s unlikely to resurface anytime soon. In his place, a new candidate has emerged: This guy walks the middle ground, woos independents, and steers clear of explosive issues. It turns out you can teach old dogs new tricks: Just as Lieberman tailored his public pronoucements to suit his party’s fundraising agenda, Cheney pried himself away from long-held positions to help George W. Bush attract the critical swing votes — the majority of which must be lured from the middle ground sandwiched between the two major parties.

As old-school liberals learned when the Democrats converged in Los Angeles, this is not a good year to inhabit the corners of American politics. Furious about the death penalty? Sorry, both candidates support capital punishment. Angry about abortion? Too bad — the most the ostensibly pro-life Bush will pledge is to "reduce the number of abortions in America." Up in arms over dwindling public assistance? Tough luck; neither party wants to be chained with the responsibility of swelling welfare rolls.

It’s a tough lesson, but Cheney and Lieberman have both learned it well: To win an election, you’ve got to abandon your more out-there leanings — even if that means losing a bit of yourself in the process.