THEY CAME, THEY SAT, THEY ACTED LIKE GROWN-UPS. This must have been how it was in the old days, when Senate Democratic Leader Lyndon Johnson could stroll across the aisle and invite Everett Dirksen, his GOP counterpart and grandmaster of Senatorial bombast, over for a bourbon. The aisle's grown wider, of course, in the past 40 years, the Republicans have moved way off to the right, the Democrats moved off to the left, then back again. And few, come to think of it, have moved further back than Joe Lieberman, whose conviviality with Dick Cheney was the result of something more than professional courtesy. Fact is, Joe Lieberman is a Republican on any number of issues. He's not a Republican in the mold of W. or Newt, but Old Ev Dirksen would sign him up in an instant.
It wasn't that Lieberman strayed to the right of Al Gore during Thursday's vice-presidential debate; far from it. But Gore had stayed so narrowly, repetitively, on message in Tuesday's presidential debate that he could have been mistaken for an obsessive-compulsive who'd misplaced his Paxil. Lieberman, by contrast, affably answered the questions put to him, and in so doing, showed us just how far right his party has moved. Contrasting Gore's debt retirement plan to W.'s tax giveaway, he officially elevated debt retirement to the status of the Democrats' defining doctrine. "The most important thing the federal government can do," he told us, "is to be fiscally responsible." He spelled out in detail how Gore's proposed increase for Pentagon spending was twice as large as W.'s, how W. had allotted nothing for additional weapons procurement, while Al had allotted plenty. The candidate of moral rearmament was now also the candidate of just plain rearmament. Listen to Lieberman, and you realize that the Democrats have become the party of Coolidge on the economy and the party of Reagan on the military.
It wasn't all this gruesome, fortunately. Lieberman was remarkably eloquent on the subject of gay rights and gay marriage -- rooting the cause in the language of the Declaration of Independence and doctrine of equality before God, delineating the rights that domestic partners should be entitled to, stopping well short of support for gay marriage (he is running for national office in America, after all), but suggesting he's open to argument. It was a brilliant answer.
FOR ANYONE WHOSE FIRST EXPOSURE TO GOP IDEAS came during W.'s performance in Tuesday's debate, Dick Cheney's performance Thursday night must have come as a revelation: You don't have to be stupid to be a Republican. In particular, Cheney displayed something the public had not previously seen: a sense of humor, even wit, which contrasted favorably with Lieberman's hammy (make your own joke) shtick. Of course, some of Cheney's answers were woefully deficient -- most especially, that on racial profiling, where he averred he could not imagine how it felt to be pulled over for DWB, and suggested no federal remedy for the problem. Like most debaters, he had his share of inconsistencies -- attacking the Clinton Administration for expanding the federal government's role in American life, while also holding Clinton responsible for the decline in reading scores: the president as national school superintendent.
On the whole, though, Cheney covered the same terrain that W. had trod on Tuesday, only this time without tripping. He sounded the traditional Republican attack on big government. He detailed allegations of the decline of our military might. Lieberman refuted these charges, as Gore had on Tuesday, by asserting what should be obvious: that the U.S. today is stronger militarily, relative to all other nations, than any superpower has been since -- when? Imperial Rome? Had he wished, Lieberman could have pointed out that we had waged a terribly destructive air war over Yugoslavia last year without suffering a single casualty, that we have reached such a level of disproportionate might that we can wage war devoid of the most basic constraint: fear of (our own) death.
The whole specter of military weakness is a strange displacement of the anti-Clinton sentiment so beloved by the Republican right and so ineffective an argument to anybody else. Bush and Cheney aren't really treating the "decay" of our forces as a serious problem; if they were, they'd have proposed a bigger defense budget increase than Gore. Viewed militarily, the issue is as bogus as the "missile gap" that John F. Kennedy claimed was imperilling us during the 1960 campaign, when in fact we had many more missiles than the Soviets. Instead, the current military-weakness alarm is really one more way of saying Bill Clinton was a goddam draft-dodger whom today's (almost entirely Republican) officer corps can't stand. They can't really say that, because the actual Democratic nominee isn't Bill Clinton, and the last thing they want is to compare Al Gore's service record to that of their own nominee, whose tenure in the Air National Guard seems to have coincided with the period in his life known as The Missing Years. Why the Republicans think they can make hay with Clinton's service record in an election where he's not the candidate when they couldn't get very far with it in elections where he was the candidate is a mystery; but real hatred often surpasseth understanding.
Cheney also echoed W.'s complaint that the Democrats' numbers were incomprehensible: "You had to be a CPA to understand that," he said after one Lieberman response. (A much better line that W.'s lamentation over "fuzzy math," since the word "fuzzy" instantly calls to mind Bush's own thought process.) Unlike Gore's presentation two nights before, though, Lieberman's numbers were really quite comprehensible. If there's a strategy at work here, it must be this: the Bush campaign has concluded that anyone who hasn't decided between Bush and Gore this late in the campaign must be really dumb. And they will win these key swing voters in two ways: First, by an empathic appeal of their presidential candidate (the so-called "Dumb Like Me" strategy). Second, by making Gore and Lieberman look like smart guys showing off. Which in Gore's case isn't hard.
THE REVIEWS ARE IN FROM TUESDAY NIGHT'S opening presidential debate, and the notices for Al Gore pretty much all read alike: "Liked (or hated, depending on the reviewer's politics) the message; hated the messenger." The punditocracy will doubtless caution Gore going into next week's second round that he should comport himself more like Joe Lieberman -- a gentleman, not a pit bull.
I can't recall a day when the op-ed pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times all ran multiple articles on the same physical tic, but on Thursday, the punditocracy turned as one to Al Gore's sighs. I agree, they were irksome, the mannerism of an obnoxious, precocious 12-year-old who knows the right answer but has to sit through the dithering of that dumb Bush kid just because Mr. Lehrer called on him, unfairly. Some columnists, having finished with the sighs, moved on to Gore's head-shaking; others demurred.
Could it be that our chattering class has forgotten the Gore performances of yesteryear -- or even yestermonth? Just this February, while carving poor Bill Bradley into hundreds of small pieces, Gore not only shook his head and sighed; he snorted. When he debated Jack Kemp in 1996, he shook his head, sighed, snorted and whinnied. Against Ross Perot in 1993, he made funny noises with his armpits. Sighs matter, but Al's done worse.