When it comes to political resourcefulness, you have to take your yarmulke off to Joe Lieberman. According to backstage accounts, Lieberman’s religion was discussed during the veep-choosing process only as a potential political problem. But that hasn’t stopped him from touting his selection as a bold statement of inclusion. Lieberman disagrees with Al Gore about school vouchers and raising the retirement age, but he has spun Gore’s toleration of these differences as further evidence of Gore’s strength. Lieberman’s ally Bill Bennett may have written The Book of Virtues, but Lieberman has written the book on repackaging your liabilities as virtues. When life gives you matzot, make matzo balls.
Now Lieberman’s publicity tour has advanced to its second week, and the moves are getting fancier. Originally, Democrats suggested that he would firm up their ticket’s stature on moral issues, in part because he has spent years trying, through shame and intimidation, to cleanse movies, television, pop music, and video games of gratuitous sex and violence. Yesterday, several political talk show hosts tried to turn this record against him, suggesting that it smacked of censorship and might scare liberals. Lieberman was ready. His cultural warfare isn’t authoritarianism, he explained. It’s anti-corporate populism.
This spin evidently hadn’t occurred to Lieberman when he first appeared with Gore in Nashville, Tenn., last week. At that event, Gore declared, “I wanted someone who would fight right alongside me for the people, not the powerful. … Joe Lieberman has stood for working families. … As attorney general of Connecticut, he took on big polluters to clean up toxic waste. … Joe Lieberman has stood up to the big oil companies and cracked down on price gouging at the gas pumps.” Lieberman, a tort-reform advocate and friend of the insurance industry, neglected to pick up the theme. He spoke of values separately: “We will work—Al and Tipper, Hadassah and I—to help renew the moral center of this nation, so that families can be stronger, children safer, and parents empowered to pass on to their children their faith and their moral values.”
A week later, Lieberman has his lines down. He’s standing up to big moral polluters for the same reason Gore is standing up to big environmental polluters. When asked on Meet the Press about the possibility of “legal restrictions” on Hollywood, Lieberman swore allegiance to the First Amendment but added, “The average family feels as if it’s in a competition with a lot of the stuff … coming out of the entertainment industry, and government has to be on the side of standing with those people to help them, because they feel helpless against the big entertainment industry. … This is, if I may say so, a different kind of expression of what Al Gore has been talking about, which is standing with the people against the powerful.” Lieberman described his mission as “fighting for average families when it comes to cultural and moral values.”
On Face the Nation, he delivered the same pitch. When asked whether Hollywood could “expect a lot of pressure from the Gore-Lieberman administration,” Lieberman rejected censorship but accused “the entertainment industry” of making it “harder for parents across America who are trying so hard to give their kids good values to do so. I’ll never forget the woman I met at a supermarket in New Haven a couple of years ago who pleaded with me, ‘Keep up this fight.’ Because, she said, ‘I feel as if I’m in a competition with the entertainment industry to raise my own children, and they’re [the industry] winning.’ And, you know, this is a very interesting expression of the ‘people vs. the powerful’ mode that Al Gore’s been talking about. And we want to stand with the people.”
On This Week, Lieberman repeated his script almost word for word. The entertainment industry “makes it very difficult for parents who are working so hard to give their kids values and discipline to do so, because, as one mother said to me a couple years ago … ‘I feel,’ she said, ‘as if I’m in a competition with the entertainment industry to raise my kids, and they’re winning.’ … A Gore-Lieberman administration will be concerned about what government can do, within appropriate constitutional limits, to improve the moral future of America as well as the economic future of America.”
What Lieberman is attempting here is broad-daylight political theft. He’s trying to recapture cultural conservatism from the GOP and secure it to the Democratic Party by reframing it in anti-corporate terms. The culprit isn’t just Hollywood, as Bob Dole characterized it four years ago. It’s the “big entertainment industry”—the cousin of Big Oil, Big Tobacco, the HMOs, and the big drug companies. These behemoths are “competing” with parents, who are “helpless” to resist. And unlike Republicans, Democrats aren’t afraid to say who should step in: “Government” must “fight for average families.” Like a diamond carried out of a jewelry store in a glass of water, the crackdown on commercial filth blends right into a Democratic populist agenda. That’s not just genius. It’s chutzpah.
If it works, this integration of cultural conservatism with economic progressivism will convince independent voters that Gore and Lieberman are serious about battling cultural rot, while reassuring mainstream Democrats that this battle is guided and limited by the party’s values. Explaining the connection will take some time. Lieberman made a good start yesterday by appearing on all five weekly talk shows. Which just goes to show that the credit Gore has reaped for picking a running mate who won’t campaign on Saturdays is yet another masterpiece of jew-jitsu. What would really take guts is picking a running mate who takes the Christian Sabbath so seriously that he won’t do Meet the Press.