Frame Game

Gore Dumps Clinton

The morning after Al Gore picked Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, the New York Times published the reaction of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Gore “has two great needs,” said Falwell. “One is credibility, which Mr. Lieberman brings to anything he touches. The second is an everlasting divorce from Bill Clinton, and this is that.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page agreed: “Lieberman is the closest thing Democrats have to an anti-Clinton.”

Gore couldn’t have bought better quotes than these. All the material concerns in the presidential election—peace, prosperity, safety—are on Gore’s side. What’s killing him are the moral concerns: his truth-stretching attacks, his weaseling defenses, and above all, his boss’s adultery and deceit in office. To shift the election’s focus to the material considerations, Gore needs to neutralize the moral considerations. That’s where Lieberman comes in.

Gore aides say that Lieberman brings “a sense of moral rectitude to the ticket” and will “shield” Gore from Republican efforts “to make the president’s character a campaign issue,” according to the Times. “Gore’s objective, his advisers and other Democrats say, is to replace his political partner of eight years with a fresh—and untainted—candidate.” The head of Gore’s vice-presidential search team, Warren Christopher, calls Lieberman “a symbol of rectitude.” Gore deputy campaign manager Mark Fabiani argues that the pick “says a lot about [Gore’s] judgment and his values.” Gore spokesman Chris Lehane told the Times, “If you look at both men, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, they’re both people who throughout their lives made the right choices. Both led very responsible lives.”

Lieberman insulates Gore against four moral problems. The first is Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Virtually every TV and newspaper story about the Lieberman pick has led with two themes: He’s Jewish, and he’s the first Democrat who had the guts to reproach Clinton openly for being a cad. “CRITIC OF CLINTON—Choice of Senator Seen as Offering Distance From Scandals,” declared the Times. The Washington Post’s lead sentence said the pick showed Gore was “charting an independent course from President Clinton.”

Better yet, the pick is being read as Gore’s way of delivering, through Lieberman, the ethical rebuke to Clinton that Gore felt he could not deliver himself. “The choice may tell the public something more not just about Mr. Gore, but about his relationship with his political partner for the past eight years,” ventured the Times. Even conservatives, in their eagerness to see Clinton repudiated, bought this line. In its editorial, headlined “Gore’s Clinton Fatigue,” the Journal crowed, “Gore has picked someone as far away from his president as he could go and still stay within his own party.”

Second, Lieberman bolsters Gore’s association with religion. Lieberman differs from most Americans in that he’s Jewish, but he pleasantly resembles them in that he’s a believer. For a politician, he is conspicuously devout, ethical, and observant. “Vice President’s Pick Has Air of Integrity,” proclaimed the New York Times, boasting that “Lieberman has acquired a reputation for steady habits, family values and faithfulness to his beliefs.” Profiles of Lieberman note that he reads the Bible daily and attends worship services regularly. Monday, Lieberman told reporters how he and Gore had prayed together after the selection. Debuting as Gore’s running mate Tuesday, Lieberman recited a Bible passage and used the word “God” eight times. Having a religious Jew at his side helps Gore flaunt his own Christianity to conservatives without scaring liberals.

Third, Lieberman reminds people of the moral issues Clinton and Gore have tackled during their administration. Remember the V-chip? Remember Tipper Gore’s campaign against sex and violence in rock music? Of course not. The Lewinsky saga ruined all that. But Lieberman can bring it back. Much of the coverage of his selection has pointed out his leadership against the marketing of sex and violence to children, as well as his efforts to stop the persecution of Christians abroad. Conservative Christian leaders have shown up to applaud Lieberman for his “moral substance” and his faith in the Bible and the Ten Commandments.

Fourth, Lieberman shores up the Democratic ticket’s credibility on campaign-finance reform. Gore, after all, never dropped his pants for an intern. His principal moral problems are the Buddhist temple and “no controlling legal authority.” Lieberman mitigates these problems. The Journal credits him with “sharply criticizing Democratic Party fund-raising excesses on behalf of Mr. Clinton.” The Times calls him “a vigorous advocate of campaign finance reform,” noting that during the Senate’s 1997 investigation of campaign-finance sleaze, “Other Democrats lobbed softball questions at administration witnesses, but Mr. Lieberman asked tough questions.”

The most important effect Lieberman might have on the campaign is to vent, at least symbolically, the public’s disgust with the Lewinsky mess. In February 1999, after Clinton’s impeachment trial was over, Lieberman admitted that part of his rationale for rebuking Clinton in September 1998 was to furnish a statement to which other Democrats could attach themselves, thereby releasing their anger and separating the party’s political accomplishments from Clinton’s personal sins. Lieberman recognized that Clinton had to be punished somehow and that a verbal reprimand would remove some of the pressure for impeachment.

Gore now faces the same challenge. Clinton escaped both removal from office and censure. Many voters remain angry at him. A lot of them are inclined to express their disgust with him and their desire for a more ethical presidency by voting against Gore. What Gore needs more than anything else is to vent this disgust and gratify this desire within the next three months, so that it is neutralized before Election Day. He needs to convince the electorate that in terms of adultery and lying, the Clinton era is over, the Lieberman era has begun, and Gore will be a lot more like Lieberman than like Clinton. Picking the man who denounced Clinton on the Senate floor is a beautifully ironic touch. Gore, through Lieberman, is triangulating off Clinton. Clinton would understand.