(CNSNews.com) - Knowledgeable, polite, but disagreeing on just about everything, vice-presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman staked out their differences Thursday night on tax policy, abortion and deployment of the U.S. military.
The debate in Danville, Kentucky offered voters a chance to measure the style and substance of the two candidates, but there were no blunders or breakthroughs, mostly just congeniality and flashes of humor.
Lieberman used all but ten seconds of his first response to outline what he wanted to cover in the course of the debate. He also took time to thank his family, "the wonderful people" of Kentucky and Connecticut, and his running mate, Al Gore.
Lieberman also relayed the advice his mother had given him prior to the debate: "'Sweetheart,' as she is prone to call me, 'Remember, be positive and know that I will love you no matter what your opponent says about you.'"
For his part, Dick Cheney assured Lieberman that he, too, wanted to avoid personal attacks: "I promise not to bring up your singing," said Cheney, referring to Lieberman's recent performance on a late-night television show.
Referring to each other as "Dick" and "Joe" throughout the evening, the two men appeared to disagree the most, ironically, on the issue of how to make the political discourse in Washington more agreeable and bipartisan.
"With all due respect Joe, there is just an awful lot of evidence that there has not been any bipartisan leadership out of this administration - or out of Al Gore," Cheney charged. "The fact is the Medicare problems have not been addressed. We've had eight years of promises on prescription drugs and no action. The Social Security problem has not been addressed."
Lieberman fired back, telling moderator Bernard Shaw and the audience at Centre College that "Dick Cheney must be one of the few people in America who thinks nothing has been accomplished in the last eight years," and he named several Republican senators with whom he had worked to pass legislation.
Lieberman also insisted that most Americans are better off now than they were at the beginning of the Clinton-Gore Administration, teasing Cheney about the lucrative stock options he had received for his work as chairman of the oil services company, Haliburton Inc.
"I see Dick, from the newspapers, that you're better off than you were eight years ago too," Lieberman said.
Cheney replied: "And I can tell you Joe that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it."
The two squared off on tax policy with Lieberman defending Gore's plans for targeted tax cuts and Cheney defending the Bush proposal for an across-the-board tax reduction.
Lieberman said, "We're focusing our tax cuts on the middle-class, in the areas where they tell us they need it - tax credits for better and more expensive child care, tax credits for middle class families that don't have health insurance from their employers..."
But "the [Gore] plan is so complex," Cheney argued, "that ordinary Americans are never going to be able to figure out what they even qualify for. It is a classic example of wanting to have a program that will in fact direct people to live their lives in certain ways rather than empowering them to make decisions for themselves."
Cheney said the Gore-Lieberman programs represent the "old way of governing ourselves -- of high levels of spending, high taxes, ever-more intrusive bureaucracy"
However, Lieberman said he and Gore are the ones proposing to eliminate the federal debt by the year 2012. And under the Bush-Cheney budget, according to Lieberman, a $2.8 trillion federal debt would remain 12 years from now.
Each candidate defended his position on abortion with Cheney indicating that a Bush Administration would ban partial birth abortions, advocate parental notification laws and work harder to promote adoption and Lieberman insisting that abortion should be a decision left to "a woman, her doctor and her God."
Cheney, who served as Secretary of Defense during the Persian Gulf War, said the U.S. military is worse off now than it was eight years ago and "the reduction in forces is far beyond anything justified by the end of the Cold War." Cheney said the Pentagon is currently "over-committed and under-resourced."
Lieberman criticized Cheney for those comments, saying it was "not right and not good, for our military, to run them down ... in the midst of a partisan political debate."
Both candidates indicated they are open-minded on the topic of homosexuality.
Cheney, whose eldest daughter is lesbian, said, "The fact of the matter is, we live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everybody. We don't get to choose, and shouldn't be able to choose, and say, 'You get to live free, but you don't.'"
Cheney said people "should be able to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It's really no one else's business in terms of trying to regulate or prohibit behavior..."
On specific question of homosexual marriage and civic unions, Cheney admitted, "that's a tougher problem...not a slam dunk."
He said it's a matter for the states to decide, and he said it's "appropriate" that different states are likely to come to different conclusions on the subject. "I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area."
Cheney said, "I try to be-open minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships...I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into."
Lieberman called it a "very current and difficult question," one that he's been thinking about.
He noted that he has sponsored anti-discrimination legislation to extend protections to homosexuals. But he said the question of gay marriage is more difficult:
"It confronts or challenges the traditional notion of marriage as being limited to a heterosexual couple, which I support.
"But," Lieberman continued, "I must say, I'm thinking about this because I have friends who are in gay and lesbian partnerships who have said to me, 'Isn't it unfair that we don't have similar legal rights to inheritance, to visitation when one of the partners is ill, to health care benefits?' And that's why I'm thinking about it. And my mind is open to taking some action that will address those elements of unfairness while respecting the traditional religious and civil institution of marriage."
Unlike Bush and Gore, who stood at podiums during their first debate, Cheney and Lieberman remained seated for their 90-minute exchange, and it showed in their demeanor. Both appeared relaxed and in command of their material.
At one point, having just referred to Cheney's financial success in the private sector, Lieberman looked out into the audience and wondered aloud whether his wife might be thinking he should also get a job in private industry.
Without missing a beat, Cheney said, "Well, I'm going to try to help you do that Joe."
Lieberman had the last word during the exchange, telling Cheney, "I think you've done so well there, I want to keep you there."