Al Gore has taken a big step toward escaping Bill Clinton's shadow with his choice of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate. Strategically, it's a move that could help Gore and the Democrats on a number of fronts.
Senator Lieberman, you may remember, was the first Democratic senator to criticize Clinton's misconduct during the Lewinsky scandal. By choosing this particular Democrat, the Gore campaign likely hopes to distance itself from the more tawdry aspects of this unseemly affair and show that Gore has the good government seal of approval from a well-regarded politician who is unafraid to speak his conscience.
At the same time, Gore's choice signals an implicit promise to voters about the ethical tone of any future Gore administration. Words such as "honesty" and "integrity" are among those used when political colleagues on both sides of the aisle talk about Senator Lieberman. To those who tuned in to last week's Republican convention, these are familiar words: precisely the ones used by GOP speakers to describe what they say George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would restore to the White House. To the degree Lieberman's inclusion on the ticket can blunt this line of Republican attack, he will help Gore.
Then there's the headline-making aspect of Lieberman's selection: his faith. Gore has said that his choice of Lieberman was made irrespective of it. But by naming the first Jewish candidate to a major party presidential ticket, Gore deliver a subtle rebuttal to the Republican show of inclusion last week in Philadelphia. Gore might well be saying to America: Republicans talk diversity; Democrats walk it. Further, a strong Jewish turnout for the Gore-Lieberman ticket could help the Democrats in such key swing states as Illinois and Ohio.
Finally, Lieberman is well enough regarded in Connecticut that he could truly help shore up a state that, despite Clinton-Gore wins in 1992 and 1996, cannot be regarded as a gimme for Gore this time around.
So does a vice-presidential pick whom even Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer praised for intelligence and integrity have his minuses? Well, the first may have been touched on by Fleischer in rounding out his critique: "[Lieberman's] positions are more similar to Governor Bush's than to [Gore's] own." By this he meant Lieberman's record on school vouchers, some tax matters and Social Security reform, among other issues.
What's more, Lieberman's generally centrist voting record could hurt the Gore ticket on its left flank, which is in need of some protection. The global, free-trade sentiments of Gore and campaign director William Daley have led to labor flirtation with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and may well lead to enough defections on the rank-and-file level to eat into Gore's core support in key states. The addition of another free trader in Lieberman could exacerbate this problem for the Democratic candidatealthough the good reception he received at a previously scheduled AFL-CIO speech shows that Lieberman is not without friends in organized labor.
Lieberman's reputation of moral uprightness might pose problems for Gore similar to the policy mismatches between the two. With a presidential candidate who has his own ethical problems - which the recent leaks from the Justice Department has shown us could flare up again at any time - there's a risk that rectitude in the ticket's number two slot will cut both ways. One can imagine, in the vice presidential debates, Cheney saying something like: "C'mon Joe, you're a good man - you know this Clinton-Gore crowd's values are wrong for America ... here, you even said so!"
Finally, the degree to which Lieberman's faith will come into play, in even subtle and unforeseen ways, in a national election campaign must at this point be regarded as an unknown, despite the flap that attended Democratic Party National Chairman Ed Rendell's (who is himself a Jew) impolitic public questioning of whether American voters are ready for a Jewish vice presidential candidate.
The prevailing logic in the Democratic camp has been, anyone who won't vote for a Gore-Lieberman ticket because Lieberman is Jewish wouldn't have voted for it in the first place. And many have pointed to this being a more mature society than that which debated the "issue" of John F. Kennedy's Catholicism - and elected him president regardless. We can certainly hope so, but we also have come to understand that bigotry does not always wear jackboots and that diversity can stop at the clubroom door.
Gore has surprised most political observers by making his best move in this campaign when he needed it most. With the Republicans riding high out of Philadelphia and George W. Bush bouncing to as much as a 17-point lead, Gore must at this point not only do just about everything right but with points for style as well. By choosing Lieberman, he accomplished both. The boldness of Gore's choice may move some voters to reassess a candidate they may have written off as too cautious. And by daring to make history, Gore has not only garnered headlines but pushed the Republicans off the public radar at a time when the Democrats most need to clear space for their message.