The Veep and the also ran

Maggie Gallagher

8/1/2000 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
The news that Dick Cheney won the veepstakes sent a little chill down my spine. It's not that there is anything at all wrong with the former secretary of defense. I'm not worried that he makes Bush look boyish, beholden or lacking in gravitas, as the Democrats charge. Nor is the choice of Cheney, a solid if mild-mannered conservative, evidence that the Bush team has turned its back on Reaganism, as some right-wing commentators fear. And I certainly do not mourn Bush's failure to tap McCain, a man who, for all his virtues, is nowise anybody's idea of a backup singer in someone else's band.

No, what's worrisome is that Cheney for Veep feels more like the ultimate safe choice, an incumbent's choice, if you will, rather than a fighting insurgent's. Cheney won't add to Bush's appeal in any state or constituency. In picking Cheney, Bush was clearly looking beyond the campaign itself, to get a man of substance who'd make both an ideal vice president -- loyal, discreet, trustworthy, a guy who can get things done and fade into the background -- and a perfectly competent potential president.

Nobody's going to stay up nights fretting about the possibility that Dick Cheney's hands might one day be on The Button. "Do no harm" rather than "Grab the gold" was the modus operandi. And that worries me because candidates who try to coast on their leads often end up losing them.

Bush's highly publicized extensive search for a veep had this important side benefit: It considerably raised the national profile of also-ran Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, in whom social conservatives may have found a new standard-bearer. I heard him in person for the first time a few weeks ago at the Smart Marriages conference in Denver sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples' Education (www.smartmarriage.com). On stage with his telegenic wife, Cathy, he was fabulous: articulate, personable, self-effacing, funny, clear-headed and easy-going. The Frank Keating secret to a lasting marriage? "Compromise and do as you're told," he deadpanned.

Jokes aside, Keating is a real leader on the marriage issue, the only governor in America to make reducing divorce an important goal -- and also come up with a plan to help make it happen. Keating is using $10 million in unspent TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds to use "existing government structures," as he put it, to help promote marriage. Social service caseworkers, public health nurses, counselors and educators are going to be educated about the importance of marriage for children's well-being and the existence of marriage skills programs.

A new marriage scholar-in-residence at the state university is available to provide expert guidance and help evaluate outcomes. He's eliminated the "marriage penalty" in the state welfare system so it no longer favors cohabitation over marriage. Using the power of the bully pulpit, he's called together religious leaders to promote community marriage covenants and better marriage education and preparation.

What prompted Frank Keating to become a leader in this issue? Pure economics, he told us. Early on he commissioned a report on why Oklahoma was lagging behind America economically. Along with standard analyses about taxes and regulation, he said he "turned the page" and there he learned for the first time that high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing were also helping retard economic growth in his state. Labor economists know this, but few politicians do: Marriage is a wealth-producing institution, as important maybe as education in preventing poverty and promoting economic growth.

Keating deserves kudos for leading on a vital new issue in a way that unites rather than divides Oklahomans. Cheney may be winner of the veepstakes, but when the dust settles, in Keating a new national star may just have been born.