Behind the VP picks, an ode to wonkiness

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman take the stage in two months for their one and only vice-presidential debate, the floor may start to sag for all the gravitas in the room.

These two men, the Republican and Democratic running mates for the slightly younger, handsomer ticket-toppers, represent an almost retro trend in Washington politics: the return of the experienced, middle-age, male policy wonks.

In an age when image has become everything - and the desired image in politics seemed to hew more toward the blow-dried and glib rather than the serious and substantive - the two main parties are girding their presidential tickets with some old-fashioned political meat and potatoes.And in an era when the public is increasingly turned off by politics, these two men - particularly the one who wins - have the potential to help restore some faith in government, political observers say.

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In making their first appointments, Republican nominee George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore showed they were "confident enough and understanding enough of their weaknesses that they were able to select people where any analyst could say, 'Gee, those were good choices,' " says Charles Jones, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Mr. Cheney, a former White House chief of staff, congressman, and defense secretary, would bring to a Bush White House the experience in foreign and national-security policy that Bush lacks.

Mr. Lieberman, a two-term US senator and Connecticut politician, brings to Mr. Gore the ability to forge compromises with Congress, never the vice president's strength when he served in the House and the Senate.

But can they attack?

A complicating factor in this "return of the wonks" thesis is that, historically, vice-presidential running mates are supposed to fill the role of attack dog in a campaign. The presidential candidate himself takes the high road, remains relentlessly positive, and allows his surrogates to do the dirty work of pointing out why the other guy does not deserve the honor of sitting in the Oval Office.

Neither Cheney nor Lieberman is known for political pugilism. But Cheney has already shown that he can do it; in his trademark measured tones, the Wyomingan's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention Aug. 2 used tough words to attack the failings of the Clinton-Gore administration.

Whether Cheney will continue that line or whether Lieberman will follow suit with critiques of Mr. Bush's record as Texas governor or preparedness for the presidency remains to be seen.

What is clear, though, say analysts, is that there's no danger either of the No. 2s will overshadow their No. 1s. That, in part, may well explain part of their appeal to the men who chose them.

Both Bush and Gore were looking for helpmates whom they could trust and who would provide a steady hand behind the scenes, not someone who would leap to the fore as a wannabe president. The public, in the end, still votes for president. Vice-presidential nominees seldom make a difference in voters' bottom line.

A deciding factor, for both sides

Bush's selection of Cheney, in fact, seemed to give birth to Gore's selection of Lieberman. Bush made a "governing" decision in his choice, selecting someone who did not add a large-electoral-vote state to his ticket but rather gave him someone he would want at his side as president.

Gore, who had the luxury of going second, considered some running mates who could have shored up some of the vice president's political weaknesses. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts would have been seen as a liberal who could bring more of the Democratic "base" into Gore's camp and away from Green Party nominee Ralph Nader. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina could have plucked that state away from the Republican column.

But Gore, too, evidently opted for the governing decision as well - with a bit of an "outside the box" feel to it, because of Lieberman's Jewish faith. The Lieberman selection, therefore, gave juice to pundits, who could see it as both safe and risky at the same time.

In both of their selections, Bush and Gore have also shown a recognition of the enhanced stature of the vice presidency, which Gore himself has demonstrated in his nearly eight years as President Clinton's understudy. Under President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale served as a significant adviser. And under Mr. Clinton, whose White House has not featured strong chiefs of staff or other top advisers, Gore has filled the role of major governing partner.

Cheney's and Lieberman's "great common strength is that both of them are regarded as eminently qualified to play a substantive role as vice president and serve as president if need be," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at The American University here. "This is something new. No one cared about a VP playing a role, because they didn't used to. Now that's changed."

This view has resulted in intense scrutiny of the vice-presidential candidates' legislative record. The Democrats answered the selection of Cheney with a litany of the former congressman's most conservative votes out of his 10 years in the House. The Republicans have instead gone positive with a twist: They're highlighting the ways in which Lieberman's record doesn't dovetail with Gore's and, in fact, could look like a platform of a Republican running for vice president.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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