Politics & Policy

On Lieberman, Questions Remain

Gore vs. Lieberman on the issues.

O.K., Joe Lieberman is probably a very good pick for Al Gore. Lieberman is solid where Gore is slippery, thoughtful where Gore is reflexive, human where Al Gore is whatever it is that Al Gore is.

But since Gore is the kind of man who doesn’t settle on one- or two-ply toilet paper without first asking a focus group (“Do Alpha Dogs use Charmin?”), one is required to apply even more skepticism than usual to the thinking that goes into a veep pick. Moreover, since it appears that the big-head journalists are going to spend the day on their fainting couches panting about Lieberman’s moral authority and Gore’s “boldness” for picking such an outstanding member of the Hebrew tribe, it seems, already, that some full-blown debunking is in order.

So let’s look at the downside of this ticket, both for Gore and for the forces of truth and light. The first problem is that Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter thinks it’s a brilliant pick, which is the equivalent of digging under fifty tons of rock and coal only to see your canary choke and drop dead.

Second, there’s this issue of Lieberman as a moral crusader. Okay, yes, Lieberman is very good on moral and cultural issues, but not for the reasons spewing out of every conventional-wisdom blowhole in Christendom.

Every story and TV report this morning cites the fact that Lieberman was the first major Democrat to criticize President Clinton for playing the-prince-and-the-stablemaster’s-daughter with an intern. If this is what defines someone as morally upstanding, then the Democrats and the Republic have some problems.

On September 3, 1998, Lieberman said he had to speak out because his personal disappointment had evolved into a “graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and, ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations.” Lieberman spoke eloquently about how the president’s “private” life was indeed public, and how Bill Clinton’s behavior was “not just inappropriate. It is immoral.” It was a powerful speech and it undermined the notion that the impeachment drive was a purely “partisan” assault on the president. (The defense was, to be sure, purely partisan.)

Good for Joe. But, forgive me, this is moral leadership? (This question sounds better if you ask it with a thick Yiddish accent.) Have we defined decency down to such a low level that simply criticizing a president for lying both to the American people and to a judge, abusing the power of his office, and doing the electric boogaloo with an intern is somehow the height of moral courage? Recall that Senator Lieberman didn’t vote to impeach the president. He simply criticized him. Now, no dishonor should fall on Lieberman — at least he said it when saying it was hard — but a great deal of dishonor should fall upon a party and a press corps that consider this moral bravery on a par with Sir Thomas More. Criticizing the president for his actions seems the bare minimum for an honorable politician, let alone a moral crusader.

Which brings us to the interesting role that Lieberman plays on the Gore ticket. (We’ll get to the Jew-thing in a second.) First, though, Lieberman’s status as a Clinton critic had to be a consideration. Already, the CW bloviators are saying that Lieberman diminishes the weight of Clinton fatigue for Gore. But does it? If Gore had picked Evan Bayh or even George Mitchell, impeachment would have been less, not more, of an issue than it will be with Lieberman on the ticket. With Lieberman at Gore’s side, the press and the GOP have cause to ask about the differences between the two.

Think about all the fun questions in store for Lieberman. Such as: “Mr. Lieberman, Al Gore said that Bill Clinton was one of the ‘greatest presidents’ in American history. You said that his ‘intentional and premeditated’ lies ‘undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty.’ Is that something ‘great presidents’ do?”

In this respect, I think the Gore campaign fell for a Bush head-fake. By picking Lieberman, they obviously hoped to counter the Clinton fatigue strategy that emerged from the GOP convention. If Bush and Cheney are running on their ability to “restore dignity and honor” to the White House, Lieberman makes that charge somewhat more implausible, in that Lieberman is a dignified and honorable guy. But having a veep on the ticket who thinks Clinton disgraced the office doesn’t exactly make Clinton’s shadow disappear. Rather, it reminds people that Lieberman had the integrity to do something Gore couldn’t.

In the meantime, Lieberman’s positions on vouchers and affirmative action are also in sharp contrast to Gore’s. Indeed, Lieberman is much more pro-voucher than Bill Bradley was. And according to Gore, Bradley was the moral equivalent of a vampire preying on inner-city school kids because he favored a couple of experimental programs. How can Gore claim that Bush and Co. are trying to hurt children with vouchers, when Lieberman shares their position?

When it comes to affirmative action, Lieberman talks about a color-blind society just like Republicans do. And yet, Gore is fond of telling black audiences that conservatives hide behind the word “colorblind” like hunters behind a “duck blind.” Typically, this duck-blind thing is an awful extended metaphor, but the punchline is that being against affirmative action is racist and hateful and the moral equivalent of wanting to kill black people. This divergence of views should also prove an interesting topic for further inquiry.

Okay, a final point: the Jewish thing. Lieberman is an orthodox Jew. This makes him an unprecedented variable in American politics. My guess is that the level of anti-Semitism aimed at him will be tiny to the point of being statistically insignificant, except perhaps in a few distinct and negligible corners of the country. Don’t be surprised, though, if the Democrats start saying that any talk of God and religion in politics is inherently anti-Semitic. It would be a disgusting, cynical and ruthless ploy–which is to say, it’s perfectly consonant with the Al Gore-Bob Shrum-James Carville school of politics.

If the Gore team doesn’t do this, then anti-Semitism will play less of a role than anti-Catholicism played in the 1960 election. And what bias exists will never get picked up in the polling anyway, because few people are inclined to be anti-Semitic to strangers on the phone.

But what will come up in the polling is the Jewish vote. It will sound like aluminum crickets are invading Orlando when so many retired oxygenated Jews pour out of their Shady Pines Retirement Villages in their walkers and creaky wheelchairs to vote for such a mensch. The same will hold true in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and, of course, New York City. Indeed, that’s the interesting — and dismaying — thing about the pick. It helps Hillary more than it helps Gore. The Jewish vote will come out in droves in New York City, which can only help her.

Which raises the eternal question of the Clintons: What was the quid pro quo? Of course, the problem with the Clintons is not that all conspiracy theories about them are true, just that all conspiracy theories about them are possible. Could it be that Bill Clinton has agreed to, say, apologize at the Democratic convention in exchange for this helping hand for Hillary? I don’t know. But it’s possible.

MINOR ANNOUNCEMENT

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