WASHINGTON — Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s choice for vice president. The choice is a masterful one. Lieberman brings several big pluses to Gore’s candidacy:
* He separates Gore from President Bill Clinton cleanly and effectively. It was Lieberman who spoke up last September to scold the president for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. Despite his decades-long closeness to Clinton, Lieberman broke the ice and made it practical for other Democrats to express their concerns about the president.
* He is a deeply religious Jew, with strong personal views on issues of morality — sort of the Democrats answer to the religious right.
* Lieberman brings electoral strength. He turns the last screws in New England and probably New York and New Jersey. He puts Florida back in play. (There are more Jews in Florida than Cubans.) He will inject excitement into the American Jewish community and bring them out in record numbers — and they live, mostly, in the contested states.
For Gore, his selection of the first Jewish American on a national ticket defines him as bold and courageous. It makes him appear a bit bigger today than he did last week. It also shows that he is a shrewd political analyst.
To me, the essence of Joe Lieberman is that he is smart, articulate and an effective public servant, which he has been for almost 30 years. He has earned a reputation for marching to the beat of his own drummer. He looks at issues carefully and makes his decisions on the basis of his own judgments, not according to party positions.
I met him when he was the majority leader of the Connecticut Senate in the mid ’70s. He was a strong, vocal supporter of Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson for president in those days and he shares Jackson’s penchant for integrity and his basic political philosophy: liberal on social issues, hard on national defense.
Lieberman’s religious beliefs and practices will do a great deal to explain the Jewish religion to the American people over the next weeks. Talmudic scholars will explain what a religious Jew can and can’t do on the Sabbath, and other items of the faith. Hopefully, the focus on his religion will serve to enlighten and create greater understanding between the faiths.
There is some concern that his religion will be a drag on the ticket, just as John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered detrimental to his electability in 1960. The University of Michigan postelection poll that year showed that it did hurt. By an 8 to 1 margin, more Protestant voters who had voted Democratic in 1956 switched to the Republican candidate in 1960 than did Catholic voters. Kennedy got 80 percent of the Catholic vote that year, but that was close to normal in those days.
What is new this year is the enormous underground communications infrastructure of the Internet. We saw how the religious right used e-mail to defame and libel Sen. John McCain in his primary battles in South Carolina and Michigan. Hate travels fast and quietly by e-mail. A prominent Jewish friend of mind reported that his e-mail filled up with bigotry this week in the wake of the Lieberman announcement.
On the macro political scene, those states where religion may become a factor are states that Bush is likely to win anyway. I see Lieberman’s religion as a plus — and I have spent a good bit of time this week trying to convince some of my Democratic Jewish friends of that. They are quite concerned.
The post-Republican convention bounce had shot George W. Bush to an almost 20-point lead in some polls last weekend. Gore had begun to creep up on him in recent weeks, but Bush got a quick shot of electoral adrenalin from his announcement of former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as his running mate. Then, after a great media show in Philadelphia last week, he rocketed into the lead — actually going over 50 percent in some polls.
His father did the same thing in 1988. George Bush trailed Democrat Michael Dukakis by as many as 20 points before his convention. (As the incumbent party, the Republicans went second that year.) The senior Bush bounced out of his convention with a lead and never looked back. He won going away, propelled initially by his convention performance.
This year’s Republican convention was a great modern political show. The nature of conventions has changed over the past two decades from a meeting that decided who the nominees would be to coronations of the nominees who have already been selected in the primaries. The Republican National Convention was a final acknowledgment of that fact. It was a four-day infomercial — and it was very well done. You could not help but get the message. “Republicans are nice people, Republicans are inclusive of all races and all walks of life. Republicans are compassionate. Republicans are responsible and patriotic. And George W. is the nicest, most inclusive, most compassionate, most responsible and most patriotic of them all.”
It was very effective. After the convention, the candidates, Bush and Cheney, jumped on a train and traveled across the belt of states from Pennsylvania to Illinois that are likely to hold the key to this election, enjoying their new lead, basking in the adulation of huge, partisan crowds and beginning to mentally rearrange the furniture in the Oval office.
Into this happy train ride, however, came the Gore propaganda machine. The Gore campaign staff managed the news for three whole days, beginning Monday, with their adroit handling of the selection of the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. They pushed Bush and Cheney off the television and the front pages for five complete news cycles. It was a marvelous demonstration of skillful media management.
The selection of any running mate is a big story, but Lieberman was special. He was even bigger news because of his religion. Gore strategists knew that and used it to great advantage. Gore announced last week, during his vacation and the Republican convention, that he would announce his choice of running mate on Tuesday, Aug. 8 — a simple strategy designed to shorten the post-convention bounce that Bush was expected to enjoy.
It worked. Bush and Cheney were pushed off the radar screen. They disappeared. No one knows what they are doing or where they are. Last Tuesday night, a quickie poll showed that Gore was back within the margin of error in the matchup with Bush.
The Democratic National Convention will convene in the Staples Center in Los Angeles next week, Monday through Thursday. It, too, will be a political infomercial, and I’ll bet it will be a good one. There are no issues to be decided, no questions to be answered. It is merely a coronation, a party, a reunion and a pep rally. I can hardly wait.
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