Both VP picks sound; let's focus on the race

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2000

Regardless of what one may think about the experience, health or conservatism of Dick Cheney, he was by most measures a conventional choice to be a vice presidential nominee. It is much more difficult to label Sen. Joseph Lieberman conventional, as has been apparent from the reaction to his selection to be Al Gore's running mate.

Collectively, the nation's voters did not spend five minutes discussing the religion of George W. Bush's GOP partner. Most of us do not know that Cheney is a Methodist. If we know, we do not care. Where political candidates are concerned, the national comfort zone easily encompasses mainstream Protestants.

But when Gore tapped Lieberman, the viability of the ticket immediately began to be assessed in terms of how much Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish faith would help or hurt the Democrats. In our view, Lieberman's religion is a non-issue. Voters will move on down the road - and probably sooner than the national media.

If Cheney's long service inside the Beltway (he was President Ford's chief of staff in the mid-1970s) produced a comfort level among many people, it also enabled his critics to begin their dreary, negative tasks. Cheney has a track record. You like it or you don't, but it is there in the daylight, on videotape, in the Congressional Record and in the history books.

Lieberman by contrast is a relatively obscure member of a prominent club. Be honest. Without media prompting, how many of us remembered on Monday that it was a Connecticut Democrat named Joseph Lieberman who went prime time with his criticism of President Clinton for cavorting around the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky?

Having been reminded that it was Lieberman who chastized the President, we learn something about the senator. If what we learned can be boiled down to one word, ``independent'' may be as good as any. Clinton disgraced the presidency. Most Democrats refused to say so. Lieberman did not.

But we also learn something about Gore. The Republicans left Philadelphia determined to portray Gore and Clinton as indistinguishable. Armed with a broad brush, the GOP standard bearers are painting Gore as a team player in a tainted administration. He could have and should have done more to distance himself from his boss, they assert. By picking Lieberman, he has.

That is only one of the many steps Gore had to take to have any hope of overcoming the 11-point gap between himself and Bush. If Dubya deserves credit for doing a better job than his father in picking a running mate, so does Gore.

Soon enough the campaign will move past the quality of the veeps, beyond the sexual orientation of their offspring or their religious practices. Bush and Gore are well-matched. It's going to be an interesting race. The sooner we drop the supermarket tabloid distractions and focus on the honesty, leadership and track records of the top-of-the-ticket candidates, the better.

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