He’s every Republican’s favorite Democrat. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore’s pick for vice president, is the epitome of moral rectitude and political independence. Sen. Lieberman didn’t mince words when it came to condemning Bill Clinton for having “extramarital relations with an employee half his age … in the workplace, in the vicinity of the Oval Office.” He called the president’s behavior “not just inappropriate, it is immoral.”
And Lieberman has taken some courageous stands on political issues as well. He was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to vote to support President Bush on the Gulf War in 1991. He supports private school vouchers, a stand that puts him at odds with Al Gore and the teachers unions, whose ranks will include more than one out of every 10 delegates to next week’s Democratic convention. Lieberman has even taken on the bilingual education lobby, introducing legislation that would require more English and limit native language instruction.
But can Joe Lieberman’s personal decency and political moderation salvage Al Gore’s candidacy? Clearly, Gore hopes that Lieberman’s addition to the ticket will help distance him from the Clinton scandals. But Lieberman may actually provide a stark–and unflattering–contrast to Gore himself. For while Gore has said mildly critical things about President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, who can forget that it was Gore who led a political pep rally following the House Judiciary Committee’s vote to impeach the president? “This is the saddest day I have seen in our nation’s capital,” Gore told a group of Democratic lawmakers gathered on the South Lawn, calling Clinton “one of our greatest presidents.”
Perhaps, more importantly, Gore has built a reputation over the last seven years as a man willing to compromise principles in order to advance his own and his party’s political position. While Lieberman will be remembered as the Democrat who accused his own president of helping “blur some of the most important bright lines of right and wrong in our society,” Gore’s legacy is one of claiming “no controlling legal authority” when he had to defend his own unethical and arguably illegal telephone calls from the White House soliciting campaign contributions in 1996.
Gore’s dissembling when questioned by the FBI both about the phone calls and his role at a 1996 campaign fundraiser held at a Buddhist temple led two career prosecutors at the Justice Department to recommend an independent counsel be appointed to investigate Gore and others in the White House. FBI Director Louis Freeh made a similar recommendation, as did a Democratic political appointee at Justice–to no avail, given Atty. Gen. Janet Reno’s aversion to unearthing any more Clinton-Gore scandals.
But the worse thing that could come of Lieberman’s nomination is that he may lose some of his own moral probity. The demands of political campaigning could turn this “conscience of the Senate” into just another partisan player. Already, Sen. Lieberman has taken to calling names on the campaign trail. At a union rally in Hartford, Conn., this week, Lieberman accused the Republicans of being the party of the rich, and said the Republican ticket would “savage” Social Security–a charge he surely knows is false.
Attack-politics and scare tactics aren’t likely to work this election round. Gore’s standing in the polls–he’s down between nine and 18 points in the post-GOP convention surveys–prove that he doesn’t need another James Carville-like attack dog at his side, which may be one reason he picked Lieberman in the first place. It would be a tremendous mistake for the Democratic ticket, and Lieberman personally, if he were to play hatchet man in this election.
Lieberman intends to run two concurrent campaigns in the fall, one to retain his Senate seat (allowed by Connecticut law), and the other to become vice president.
Lieberman remains the odds-on favorite to be re-elected as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, even if his chances of becoming vice president are slimmer. If Lieberman’s vice-presidential campaign rhetoric becomes too strident and Gore loses in the fall, a re-elected Sen. Lieberman could end up diminished as a moral leader in the U.S. Senate.