Vice President Al Gore has made his first bold move in the race for the U.S. presidency. The selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate has won applause from both sides of the aisle. The senator is a thoughtful and serious politician, who is guided by a strong moral code. He will help shore up the front-runner’s flanks, but the real battle for the presidency will be fought by Mr. Gore himself.
Mr. Lieberman brings strengths to the Democratic ticket. He is an experienced politician, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1988. Before that, he was a state senator and attorney general. During his tenure in the Senate, he has staked out a reputation as a conciliator, which will blunt GOP criticism that the Democrats aim to run a negative campaign.
For the past five years, Mr. Lieberman has been chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that has been instrumental in recasting the image of the Democratic Party. Mr. Gore was one of the group’s founders, and Gov. Bill Clinton served as chairman before he became president. Mr. Lieberman was one of the 10 Senate Democrats who supported then President George Bush in the Persian Gulf War — as was Mr. Gore — and his presence on the ticket helps cut off charges that the Democrats are soft on defense. With Mr. Lieberman holding the center, Mr. Gore can reach out to Democratic constituencies some distance from the middle ground.
Mr. Lieberman’s most important attribute is the moral force he brings to the campaign. He was the first ranking Democrat to condemn Mr. Clinton for his behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair. He delivered a blistering attack on the president from the well of the Senate. His comments earned him high praise: According to Mr. David Broder, perhaps the leading U.S. political analyst, “Mr. Lieberman embodies and defines the standard by which politicians should be judged.”
Mr. Gore hopes that Mr. Lieberman’s presence on the ticket will insulate him from Republican attempts to smear the vice president with Mr. Clinton’s sins. The problem is that Mr. Gore has his own problems — most notably, questions swirling around his attempts to fill party coffers. Mr. Lieberman cannot protect Mr. Gore from his own failings.
The selection of Mr. Lieberman is not risk-free. Like Mr. Dick Cheney, the GOP vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Lieberman does not bring any additional electoral votes. Connecticut was likely to vote Democrat, just as Wyoming was solidly in the Republican column. “Solid and thoughtful” is another way of saying uncharismatic; the Democrats are badly in need of charisma on the campaign trail.
On the negative side, there are concerns that some of Mr. Lieberman’s positions could antagonize traditional Democratic constituencies. He has denounced “Hollywood’s excesses” and called on the entertainment industry to change the “toxic culture of violence and vulgarity surrounding our children.” He also supports private-school vouchers, which could irritate teachers unions, a vital Democratic support group.
The most publicized dimension of Mr. Lieberman’s nomination is the fact that he is an Orthodox Jew, and the first Jew to be in the race for the presidency of the United States. In fact, his religion is irrelevant. An opinion survey taken last year showed that 92 percent of voters surveyed said they would vote for a Jew if the person was qualified; 50 years ago, only 42 percent agreed. What is important is that his religion gives him a moral compass.
On a tactical level, his nomination is a challenge to the GOP. After a week of the Republican Party telling the world how “inclusive” it is, Mr. Gore is showing what a really inclusive party looks like. It is a a political parlor trick, but it was bound to happen.
With the selection of Mr. Lieberman, both tickets are now complete. The Democrats head to their convention with a balanced team — as do the Republicans. The language used to describe Mr. Lieberman is identical to that used for Mr. Cheney. One analyst says he is a “well-regarded, serious, thoughtful veteran of Washington whose character is unimpeachable.” Then again, after the last eight years, he has to be.
In a deft move, Mr. Gore has robbed Mr. Bush of some of his post-convention bounce. He will get a rebound of his own after his four days in the spotlight. Then the two men will really square off. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Lieberman will be in their corners, in supporting roles, but it is up to the headliners to win the confidence of voters.
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