During last week’s vice-presidential debate, moderator Bernard Shaw lobbed a plum question right into Democratic candidate Joseph Lieberman’s awaiting arms: “This is the twenty-first century,” Mr. Shaw intoned. “Yet on average an American working woman in our great nation earns 75 cents for each dollar earned by a working male. What do you males propose to do about it?”

Faithfully towing the party line, candidate Lieberman chose to mislead the American public about it. A Gore administration would make it a top priority to “eliminate the pay gap between men and women,” he said, claiming that the wage gap places an “unfair” and “unacceptable” burden on women. Moreover, he said, the Gore team supports “the equal pay act which has been proposed in Congress, which gives women the right to file legal actions against employers.”

With so much attention focused on Al Gore’s recent factual gaffes, the media overlooked this glaring one from Lieberman. Yes, an Equal Pay Act was proposed in Congress, one that gives women the right to sue their employers for discrimination. It became the law of the land in 1963. What, then, is Mr. Lieberman talking about?

Team Gore supports the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is something of a wicked stepchild of the original, equal-opportunity-based Equal Pay Act of 1963. Instead of guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, as the existing Equal Pay Act already does, the Paycheck Fairness Act tries to eliminate the wage gap by encouraging “comparable worth” schemes. Comparable worth places government bureaucrats in the role of deciding what a job is worth — all with an eye to inflating wages in female-dominated fields. As an added bonus, the Paycheck Fairness Act provides a boon for trial lawyers; the Act allows women to sue employers for unlimited compensatory and punitive damages and permits lawyers to include workers in class-action lawsuits without their consent.

These legislative shenanigans are made worse by the fact that the Paycheck Fairness Act is based on faulty principles. In truth, the wage gap is not an intractable problem. Neither is it a sign of discrimination against women. Quite simply, the difference in men’s and women’s average wages is the result of the different choices men and women have made with regard to education, consecutive years in the workforce, and type of job. When men and women with similar qualifications and experience are compared, they earn the same. If discrimination occurs, women have legal recourse through the Equal Pay Act.

In a presidential election season notable for its attention to wonkish policy details and accusations of fuzzy math (one commentator has suggested that the campaign resembles a race for accountant-in-chief) it is unfortunate that Mr. Cheney missed an opportunity to explain the real story behind pay equity. But then, you can’t blame him for dodging this particular bullet. The way the issue has been framed makes it nearly impossible to criticize. What politician wants to take a stand against something called the “Paycheck Fairness Act?”

In this debate, professional feminists remain firmly planted on the rhetorical high ground. But it’s not too late for politicians to change the focus of the wage gap debate from rhetoric to reality. To do so they should point to the facts about women’s economic progress. Those facts reveal that women are thriving. Women are the majority of college graduates, are moving into positions of power throughout corporate America, and exercise considerable clout as entrepreneurs. They demand and get equal pay for equal work.

The facts also reveal that many women want job flexibility and balance in their lives. For them, that might mean working part-time, working from home, or pursuing a career in a female-dominated profession like nursing or teaching. Gore/Lieberman and their feminist allies refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of these decisions when it comes to assessing the truth about the wage gap. For candidates who consistently flog their devotion and respect for women’s choices, this position is contradictory at best. At worst, it suggests that women aren’t capable of knowing and getting what they want in the workplace. Come Election Day, such condescension might not sit well with women voters.