Ballot Box

Gore’s Pivot

If in the end Al Gore is elected president, I expect that analysts will date the turnaround in his campaign to today, when he selected Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Like Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney, Lieberman is a shrewd pick because he reinforces what’s appealing about Gore–high intelligence and sound moral impulses–while serving as a corrective to what has been unappealing and ill-judged about the Gore campaign so far–its shrillness and populist posturing. A New Democrat of scholarly mien and an almost serene temperament, Lieberman may serve as a pivot that allows Gore to reorient his candidacy in a more promising direction.

My admiration for Lieberman dates from the Senate campaign-finance hearings that followed the 1996 presidential election. In general, those proceedings were a festival of partisan double standards. Republicans such as Don Nickles wanted to talk only about the sleazy doings of the Democrats. Democrats such as Robert Torricelli and Carl Levin ignored their own party’s abuses and tried to portray the Republicans as the true villains. Only the chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, Fred Thompson, and Lieberman approached the issue in a fair-minded way, drawing attention to the universality of the chief abuses. Of all those present, Lieberman paid the closest attention, asked the best questions of the witnesses, and developed the truest mastery of the problem. He also displayed his charm and winning wit, as when he starting giving out “chutzpah” awards for the most brazen practices.

I think Lieberman acquitted himself just as admirably in responding to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The negative rap on Lieberman is that he tends to be sanctimonious, drawing attention to his own moral virtue by too readily castigating the failings of others. It’s true that Lieberman’s famous Senate speech excoriating Clinton’s misconduct would have been more courageous had he delivered it earlier in the year. (Click here to watch a clip of the speech. Click here to read it.) Viewed cynically (by my colleague Chatterbox, for instance), Lieberman’s blast was an attempt to distance himself from the president at the moment when it looked like the president might not survive. On the other hand, Lieberman was responding in genuine frustration to Clinton’s graceless address to the nation on Aug. 17, when he admitted that he misled the public but heaped more blame on his political opponents. There’s no real support for the assumption that the timing of Lieberman’s speech was highly calculated.

Whatever the circumstances, though, Lieberman’s words were very much on point. What was unforgivable about Clinton’s behavior was not the fact that he acted immorally but that he put so much at risk so casually. “I was personally angry because President Clinton had by his disgraceful behavior jeopardized his administration’s historic record of accomplishment, much of which grew out of the principles and programs that he and I and many others had worked on together in the New Democratic movement,” Lieberman said. In other words, he felt betrayed because he believed in what Clinton was trying to do.

Lieberman was also right about Clinton afterward. His speech during the Senate’s impeachment trial was one of the best, staking out a convincing, legally precise argument that Clinton’s sins fell short of impeachable offenses. And since then, Lieberman has been able to move on, focusing on Clinton’s strong record at advancing the goals and issues that Lieberman cares about. “This presidency has been the most productive presidency in more than a generation in the United States of America,” Lieberman said, introducing Clinton at an event in June. (Clinton has moved on as well. According to various sources, he encouraged Gore to pick Lieberman.) In any case, Lieberman’s is exactly the posture Gore needs to convey: repugnance at Clinton’s sexual morality combined with support for, and an intention to continue, his successful policies.

Now for the Q & A. 

Objection: Lieberman–an Orthodox Jew from the Northeast–is, as Gore might say, a “risky” choice.

Rejoinder: To the contrary. Gore desperately needed to do something dramatic to shake up his floundering campaign. Paradoxically, picking a “safe” running mate such as John Kerry would have been the riskier decision because it would have indicated a continuation of what has been a failing approach. By picking Lieberman, Gore gets a fresh start, wins praise in the press, and even scores points for courage.

Objection: Lieberman is no attack dog, which is what running mates are supposed to be.

Rejoinder: Yes, but Gore himself is too much of an attack dog. Paired with someone like Kerry, the ticket would have been all bark and too much bite. Lieberman tones Gore down, creating something resembling temperamental parity with the Bush-Cheney ticket.

Objection: Lieberman’s In Praise of Public Life (Simon & Schuster, 2000) is a dull, irony-free book.

Rejoinder: It can’t touch Earth in the Balance–or A Charge To Keep

Objection: Anti-Semitism may doom the Democratic ticket.

Rejoinder: Ed Rendell was probably right when he told reporters, “I don’t think anyone can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket.” A poll, if you took one, wouldn’t yield an accurate answer because most voters wouldn’t admit to any prejudice, even if they felt it. Realistically, Lieberman’s Jewishness is as likely to help as it is to hurt. If residual anti-Semitism loses votes for the Democrats, most of those votes will be in Southern states where Gore isn’t favored anyway. At the same time, philo-Semitism may lend material help, not only in must-win Democratic states such New York and California but also in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

Objection: But can an Orthodox Jew run attack ads on the Sabbath?

Rejoinder: Apparently so. For details, consult Culturebox