Cheney, Lieberman Spar in Casual Debate

The vice-presidential candidates, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joseph Lieberman, engaged in a relaxed, confident exchange Thursday night that was short on sparks and thick with policy disagreements and humor.

They opened their first and only showdown with a flurry of numbers as each tried to paint the other’s budget proposal as reckless.

On Medicare, Social Security and education reform, Cheney said the Democrats — led by Lieberman’s running mate, Al Gore — had wasted their time in office.

“Eight years of talk and no action,” Cheney said, echoing a refrain of his ticket mate, George W. Bush. “They’ve been in a position of responsibility in the White House with a powerful interest, if you will, in Washington D.C., and they’ve been unable to work with others.”

For Better or Worse

Lieberman defended the vice president, saying he had delivered “big time” as a strong leader with a record of bipartisanship and riffing on a line Ronald Reagan used to zing Democrat Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debates.

“If you asked most people in America today that famous question … ‘Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?’ most people would say, ‘Yes.’”

The line set up a back-and-forth of one-liners between the candidates, as Lieberman poked fun of Cheney for making millions in recent years at the helm of the Halliburton oil services company in Texas.

“And I’m pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers, that you’re better off than you were eight years ago, too,” Lieberman said.

Unruffled, Cheney shot back, “I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Asked later whether Lieberman had corrupted his reputation in Congress as a straight shooter since joining the Gore campaign, Cheney expressed disappointment in the Connecticut senator.

“I like the old Joe Lieberman better than I like the new Joe Lieberman,” Cheney said. “Having joined with Al Gore, that depth of conviction that we had admired before isn’t quite as strong as it was, perhaps, in the past.”

Carrying the Torch

But mostly, they argued over policy.

Cheney tried to portray Lieberman and Gore as “old way” tax-and-spend liberals who would blow projected federal budget surpluses on expanding government programs.

“Gore promises $900 billion in spending over and above the surplus,” Cheney said, promising a “new era.”

Echoing the argument laid out by Bush on the trail, at the GOP nominating convention and in the first presidential debate, Cheney said his campaign would take “one quarter of the surplus and return it to the taxpayer.”

“The average American family is paying about 40 percent in federal, state and local taxes,” Cheney said. “We think it is appropriate to return to the American people so that they can make choices themselves in how that money ought to be spent.”

By Lieberman’s math, this would require that “they raid the Medicare trust fund to pay for … their tax cut and other proposals they can’t afford to pay for.”

Lieberman warned Bush and Cheney would spend $1.6 trillion (the Bush price tag of $1.3 trillion plus the projected loss of interest from less taxes coming in) of the $1.8 trillion surplus on tax cuts, bringing the nation “back down the road to higher interest rates, to higher unemployment.”

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