Politics & Government

Much has changed since 2000 Centre College debate

Much has changed since the last vice presidential debate at Centre College in 2000 — and much hasn't.

The word terrorism was spoken only once in the Danville meeting between then-former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Eleven months later — and for years afterward, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — an American could barely go through his or her day without hearing that word or experiencing the changes it brought, from tighter airport security to massive government spending for homeland security.

A review of the transcript and video of the 2000 Danville debate is chock-full of irony in light of what we now know. For example, the first question from moderator Bernard Shaw seems prescient in light of the 2008 collapse of the economy.

Shaw asked Lieberman: "Why do you, and you, Secretary Cheney, predict surpluses you cannot possibly guarantee to pay for your proposed programs?"

When the federal government closed the books on the fiscal year 2000 budget, the United States government was flush with a surplus of more than $230 billion. That's right, a surplus.

Projections forecast more of the same. On June 26, 2000, more than three months before the Centre debate, the Clinton administration estimated total projected surpluses at $1.87 trillion over the next 10 years — more than double the $746 billion forecast just four months earlier. In July 2000, the Congressional Budget Office predicted an even bigger surplus over the next decade: $2.2 trillion.

During the debate, Lieberman said he and presidential candidate Al Gore were committed to balancing the budget every year and "paying off the debt by the year 2012."

Fast forward to today: The deficit for the first 10 months of the 2012 budget year totaled $974 billion, the Treasury Department said on Aug. 10. The federal deficit was on track to top $1 trillion for the fourth straight year.

In their Wednesday night debate, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney praised a 2010 deficit-reduction plan that proposed a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the federal deficit, but neither appeared ready to embrace its specifics. Romney said he "absolutely" does not back raising taxes to reduce the deficit, and Obama has not adopted the plan's recommendations, which were made by a bipartisan commission headed by Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles.

The Iraq war — the one where the U.S. had a military presence for eight years — also was foreshadowed in the Cheney-Lieberman debate. The phrase "weapons of mass destruction" was used five times.

When the 2000 debate turned to foreign policy, Shaw asked Cheney: "If Iraq's Saddam Hussein were found to be developing weapons of mass destruction, Gov. Bush has said he would, quote, 'Take him out.' Would you agree with such a deadly policy?"

"We might have no other choice," Cheney answered. "We'll have to see if that happens."

Two years later, in a speech before the United Nations, President George W. Bush accused Iraq of repeatedly violating UN resolutions to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. On March 19, 2003, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq.

Fast forward to today: No U.S. troops remain in Iraq. The last 13,000 troops were withdrawn in December 2011. More than 4,400 troops died, and more than 32,000 were wounded. The Iraqi civilian death toll is unknown, but estimates have ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 or more. The war cost $800 billion. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

In his response to Shaw's Iraq question, Lieberman said: "The fact is that we will not enjoy real stability in the Middle East until Saddam Hussein is gone."

Hussein was hanged in 2006, but the Middle East has continued in turmoil, especially as the "Arab spring" arrived in early 2011 and Libya, Egypt and Tunisia cast off their dictators.

But there were much different outcomes elsewhere. The tiny kingdom of Bahrain crushed pro-democracy efforts, and Syria has used tanks, artillery and war planes to pound citizens seeking change.

When discussing social policy, Cheney raised hackles among some conservatives when he and Lieberman were asked whether gays and lesbians should "have all the constitutional rights enjoyed by every American citizen."

Cheney said, "People should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into." But he added that whether those relationships "should be treated the same as a traditional marriage" is "a tougher problem."

"I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate," Cheney said. "I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area."

In his 2011 autobiography, In My Time, Cheney wrote that he was thinking about his daughter, Mary, and her partner, "but I was also thinking about what's right for all of us as Americans if we truly believe in freedom."

Lieberman said he was open to some action that would address legal rights to inheritance, visitation when one partner is ill, and health-care benefits, "while respecting the traditional religious and civil institution of marriage."

Fast forward to today: The Democrats included same-sex marriage as part of their platform for the 2012 convention in August. In May, President Obama became the first sitting president to declare that gays and lesbians should be able to marry.

Mitt Romney has publicly opposed gay marriages and civil unions, but he supports domestic partnership benefits. Romney also supports a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Courts or lawmakers have declared gay marriage legal in six states and the District of Columbia, but backers of such measures have never succeeded at the ballot box. Same-sex initiatives will be on the November ballot in Maine, Maryland and Washington, and Minnesota voters will decide whether to disallow same-sex marriage with a state constitutional ban.

Meanwhile, federal challenges to Proposition 8 (California's voter-approved gay-marriage ban) and the Defense of Marriage Act (the U.S. law that blocks government benefits for same-sex couples) are headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One thing that hasn't changed in the past 12 years is that Congress and the country remain sharply divided politically.

When Shaw asked how the candidates would "elevate the political discourse and purpose," Cheney said: "I think you have to be able to reach out and work together and build coalitions."

Lieberman said he had tried to "work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get things done," and he specified how he had worked with various Republicans.

"If I go on much longer, I'll get in trouble with my own party," Lieberman said.

Fast forward to today: Lieberman did get in trouble with his own party. His support for the Iraq war led to his defeat in Connecticut's 2006 Senate Democratic primary. He then ran as an independent and won the general election with a majority of the Republican vote.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Lieberman campaigned hard for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain against Obama. Senate Democrats later stripped him of chairmanship of a minor subcommittee, but they allowed him to keep chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Lieberman, 70, did not run for re-election this year.

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