The Lieberman maneuver

Posted: Aug 09, 2000 12:00 AM
The political world is having a ball on the Lieberman business, based mostly on the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't aspect of it. As a human being, Joe Lieberman is a resplendent example of the species. The maneuver, everybody acknowledges, is to put a counterweight up there for the voters to consider. Gore/bad-character, Lieberman/good-character. Mix well -- Gore/OK character. The irony of course is that the maneuver has the effect of fortifying the public knowledge that Gore, by his association with Bill Clinton, has slept in incestuous sheets. Will his associating himself with 99 percent pure goodness eliminate the stain?

Then, of course, the maneuver was designed to give prominence to the capacity of Joe Lieberman to make sound moral evaluations, as in September 1998:

"I have been deeply disappointed and angered by this president's conduct. President Clinton engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship with a young White House employee in the Oval Office, which was irresponsible and immoral and thus raised serious questions about his judgment and his respect for the high office he holds. He then made false or misleading statements about that relationship to the American people, to a federal district court judge in a civil deposition, and to a federal grand jury; in so doing, he betrayed not only his family but the public's trust, and undermined his moral authority and public credibility."

So, therefore, don't convict him.

Will the views of the man (Gore) who pronounced Clinton one of the greatest presidents of the century be fungible, in the voters' view of the ticket, with the views of the man (Lieberman) who said that Clinton had abandoned the public trust?

The maneuver is designed to highlight the rewards of moral sensitivity. Thus, nominated for vice president isn't a Bradley, Gephardt, Mitchell, Bayh or Evans. It is the man who stepped forward and was courageous enough to register a formal, fundamentalist moral point about the behavior of the president.

But doesn't this raise uncomfortable questions about other Democrats? Will there be voters who ask themselves: If it was so deserving of public acclaim to exhibit the courage of Lieberman in September 1998 for frowning on what Mr. Clinton did in the preceding two years, how is it that what he did stands out? If in a group of 100 people, one person steps forward and volunteers to fight for God and country, one's thoughts linger over the singularity of that person's sense of duty; but after a while, one wonders about the sluggishness of the other 99. Is it a general infection the voters may be wondering about?

The maneuver is designed especially to mobilize Jewish support, given that Sen. Lieberman is the first Jewish prime-time nominee. Fair enough -- this is a political world, and to nominate someone who has generic appeal to a class of voters is traditional. But have there been careless calculations here? Jewish voters are already overwhelmingly Democratic and have been for many years.

A comment on the subject from Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Web site brings on a smile. He concedes that there will be an ethnic effect: "It will sound like aluminium 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 (for Republicans) dismaying -- thing about the pick. It helps Hillary more than it helps Gore."

And the eye lights up. Mr. Goldberg continues: "That 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," he concludes. "But it's possible."

Mr. Lieberman doesn't bring into the picture solid reinforcement either for left, or for right, credenda. He has voted every now and then in such a way as to disappoint the entrenched left; and voted every now and then to distress the scorned middle. All of that is OK. Gore won't lose the left, except on the matter of free trade, so he can use Lieberman, once again, as a counterweight. The one subtle risk he runs is the manifest attraction many voters will feel for the man who, in a better world, would be running on the Democratic ticket for president, not for No. 2.