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The BBC's Nick Bryant
"This was politics for grown-ups"
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Friday, 6 October, 2000, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
VP candidates play nice
Secretary Dick Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman
The candidates vowed to be civil and kept their promise
By Washington Correspondent Philippa Thomas

This was a gracious and grownup debate - surprisingly so.

From the outset, Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney said they were determined not to descend to personal attacks, and they didn't.

Instead, the millions of Americans who tuned in to this event will have heard 90 minutes of detailed, thoughtful exchange about the very different ways in which the two parties would like to lead the country.

Good humour

The light touch was there from the beginning.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman
Senator Lieberman started out with folksy humour

Joe Lieberman, the folksy Connecticut senator, said his mother had given him good advice: "Remember to be positive, I will love you no matter what your opponent says about you".

Dick Cheney, the heavyweight former Defence Secretary who is very often quick to go on the attack, chose to respond in kind.

Referring to his opponent's famous appearance on a late night talk show performing Frank Sinatra's "My Way", Secretary Cheney said: "I too want to avoid any personal attacks ... I promise not to bring up your singing".

"Well, I promise not to sing," Mr Lieberman responded.

This was clearly not going to be verbal warfare. In the event, it was more like professorial debate.

Highlighting the differences

That is not to say that the candidates agreed on very much.

On the economy, the Republican Dick Cheney criticised what he sees as a Democrat philosophy of high spending, high taxes, and ever more intrusive Washington bureaucracy.

He defended the big Bush tax cut, saying "we think it's appropriate to return money to the American people, for them to determine how it's spent."

As Al Gore's running mate, Senator Lieberman saw it differently, echoing his partner's charge that the Republicans concentrate their tax cuts on the country's wealthiest 1%.

He said the Democrats were focusing on the middle classes who needed help most: Offering tax credits for example on college tuition fees, childcare and health insurance.

There were other significant policy disagreements.

Dick Cheney took a pro-life, anti-abortion stand. Joe Lieberman stressed he believes in a woman's right to choose.

Dick Cheney spoke up for the Bush plan to partially privatise social security - giving working Americans the right to invest part of their entitlement as they choose.

Senator Lieberman, who used to support that concept, spoke out against it: Too risky he said, tampering with the promise of a guaranteed safety net.

But overall the tone of this debate was far more courteous than Tuesday's clash between the presidential candidates, Vice-President Al Gore and Texas governor George W Bush.

Thoughtgful analysis

Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney
Secretary Cheney answered critics with a solid performance
Dick Cheney especially delivered a powerful performance.

He is hardly a charismatic candidate, and some deride him as dull and boring. But the former Defence Secretary was firmly in control of the facts and his many years of government experience showed.

So for example, viewers experienced a down-to-earth consideration of America's foreign policy responsibilities.

Secretary Cheney and Senator Lieberman analysed what both saw as encouraging developments in Serbia.

They agreed to disagree on the extent to which America's armed forces should be peacekeepers as well as warriors.

And they disagreed profoundly - but politely - on the controversial issue of America's military readiness.

Dick Cheney argued that troops today are poorly trained and equipped, and the Clinton administration is putting their lives at risk.

Joe Lieberman countered that the US military is the best-trained, best-equipped and most powerful force in the world, ready to meet any contingency that might yet arise.

Partisan jabs

Not to say that this was a love-in.

Each predictably blamed the other side for the level of partisan conflict in Washington. Secretary Cheney criticised Al Gore as campaigning by blaming others for America's problems.

Senator Lieberman hit back by adapting a famous quotation from President Reagan: "Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?

"Indisputably" he said, "the answer is yes."

That exchange led to perhaps the most telling part of the 90-minute debate - a joking exchange that underlined the two candidates' views about the value of big government versus the private sector.

Dick Cheney has made millions from his last few years in the oil industry, and Lieberman couldn't resist the opportunity to turn to his rival, and point out that he has become very much better off during the Clinton years.

Mr Cheney hit back, "I'm pleased to tell you Joe, the government had nothing to do with it".

As Mr Lieberman mused, "I can see my wife saying I should work in the private sector", Mr Cheney ad-libbed "I'm going to try to help you get there."

Reversed roles

But it was symbolic of the entire evening that the exchange - though barbed - was essentially good-natured.

The two men declined to throw much mud at each other, even when asked to cite examples of each other's hypocrisies.

The event left me with the somewhat heretical thought, would the United States be better off if the tickets were reversed?

If these men - solid, sober, personally respectful of each other - were the men in line for the Oval Office?

But then, the reason the vice presidential candidates could be so well behaved was precisely because they're not running for the top job.

There is less tension, less scrutiny, less riding on the answers they give under the television spotlights.

They could not agree less on many aspects of government. But they could afford to be civil, and they chose to be.

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See also:

25 Jul 00 | Americas
Dick Cheney - Bush's elder statesman
16 Aug 00 | Americas
Joe Lieberman: Moral crusader
03 Oct 00 | Americas
Debating for the White House
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