Throughout the campaign, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush has maintained that the armed services are stretched too thin around the world, and that there is a morale crisis in the ranks.
At Evangel University in Missouri on Monday, Cheney justified the Republican ticket's use of the issue.
"[W]hen I raise issues about the status of the U.S. military, (Al Gore and Joe Lieberman) have argued you shouldn't talk about it. You shouldn't bring it up. Somehow it's unpatriotic to have this conversation. I think they're dead wrong. I can't think of a more important time to have this conversation than when we're making this decision," Cheney said.
Bush has been circumspect in his remarks about the bombing and the fighting in the West Bank and Gaza, saying that Americans should "speak with one voice" at a time like this. Despite the protestations of the Gore campaign, the Bush campaign has not tried to use disaster for its advantage in the presidential contest.
Cheney's remarks at the Christian school in Springfield, however, skate a little closer to the line.
At least, they seem intended to boost confidence in Republicans' capacity to command the military and handle international turmoil, if not to run down the Democrats by comparison.
Invoking the dark hours of the Iranian hostage ordeal, Cheney described the fruitless rescue attempt ordered by Democratic President Jimmy Carter that resulted in accidental deaths of American servicemen. Cheney said that then-candidate Ronald Reagan "went around the country talking about how the U.S. military had fallen on hard times."
Then, the American hostages were released just as Ronald Reagan was taking office in 1981.
"I always believed that part of that was that were going to be dealing with a very different kind of president when they elected Ronald Reagan," Cheney said.
On the stump and in debate, Cheney has said that the Clinton Administration has gone too far in in cutting the military's budget. In recent congressional testimony, all the service chiefs complained about aging equipment and thinning ranks.
"The U.S. military today is clearly worse off than it was eight years ago, there's absolutely no question about it," Cheney said he and Bush would make it "one of our very top priorities" to ensure that "our people have the resources they need to do their job for all of us."
Cheney said one of the lessons of his tenure as secretary of defense under President Bush was "the force you have to go to war with is the one created by your predecessors," and building a strongeffective military takes a long time.
Cheney said that the morning after the Gulf War, he called Reagan, the former president, to thank him for building up the military in the '80s. "I don't think any future secretary of defense is ever likely to call Bill Clinton or Al Gore and thank them for what they did to the U.S. military," Cheney said.
Gore's presidential campaign said the Republicans were inappropriately politicizing the attack last week that left 17 U.S. sailors dead.
"The Bush campaign's attempt to take advantage of the Middle East situation for Bush's own selfish political benefit will be rejected by the American people," said Kym Spell, Gore campaign spokeswoman.