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Bush-League Bravery

Gore turned to Lieberman for help with his real opponents -- Clinton's legacy and his own stiffness. Did he pick a nominee so upstanding he towers over the top of the ticket?

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"Mr. Gore will try to separate himself from his leader's shadow," Dick Cheney told the Republican convention to thunderous applause, "but somehow we will never see one without thinking of the other." Gore obviously took his comments to heart: Joseph Lieberman was an unexpected choice to run against Bush and Cheney, but he's the perfect candidate to run against Clinton.

Nearly every description of Lieberman has worked in rectitude, a word all but missing from our political vocabulary during the Clinton years. And by suggesting that Lieberman's very presence on the ticket will inoculate Gore from Clinton's scandals, the media have made it possible. Gore bet -- correctly -- that the networks would spend at least a week rerunning Lieberman's Senate speech scolding Clinton for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky. What better way to begin washing Clinton's stain out of Gore's campaign?

Gore's intended message is "Don't blame me for what Clinton did with Monica," but neither he nor Lieberman mentioned the president when they announced the Democratic ticket on Tuesday in Nashville. Instead, Lieberman talked about religion, saying more about his Jewishness in one speech than John F. Kennedy ever did about his Catholicism and more about his commitment to his faith than just about any candidate who has ever run on a major-party presidential ticket. Which is really just Lieberman's way of talking about Clinton, of distancing Gore from the president's behavior. So far, at least, it's working.

Gore needs Lieberman to do more than push Clinton out of the picture -- he needs him to help build up his own character, which is why he's delighted that everyone can't stop talking about how brave it was for him to choose a Jewish running mate. And while the decision did give him a sudden boost in the polls, the logic doesn't quite work. If the country is indeed ready for a Jewish vice-president -- as Gore keeps insisting it is -- why was it so brave? The Democrats have been putting Jews on the Supreme Court for decades; just how many constituents could they alienate by nominating one for the symbolic but relatively powerless position of vice-president? If the Democrats don't shut up about this soon, it will become obvious that, as usual in politics, the one thing not involved in their decision is bravery.

There was a lot of talk about how Bush had to be careful not to choose a running mate who would upstage him but none about Gore's having to worry about it. Now Gore has that problem and Bush doesn't.

Falling hook, line, and sinker for Gore's bravery bit, the Times reported that Gore chose Lieberman as his running mate "despite his religion." But during Lieberman's Nashville speech and the news coverage that followed, it became clear that he made it onto the shortlist because of his religion. It was the only thing that made the Gore's pick "bold." If, like Barry Goldwater, Lieberman had a Jewish father but was brought up Episcopalian by his mother, Gore might not have enjoyed nearly so much of a jump in the polls.

Then, of course, there's always the possibility that Lieberman was the only one on Gore's shortlist to survive the vetting process. Especially at a time when Gore is trying to separate himself from Clinton's scandals, Senator John Kerry couldn't possibly have made it, simply because he lived it up when he was between marriages the way Clinton always wanted to. Hardly the kind of choice that inspires the overuse of the word rectitude -- or a seventeen-point jump in the polls.

As a senator, Lieberman offers the ticket less, not more, than meets the eye. He's one of the chamber's most boring speakers, his career has no great legislative landmark, and his biggest impact on the Senate may have been improving attendance. He first got elected in 1988 partly thanks to a campaign of attack ads, rendered in animation, that depicted liberal Republican Lowell Weicker as a hibernating bear because he missed hundreds of votes during his eighteen years in the Senate. Never mind that Weicker had a voting-attendance record of around 90 percent, or that the votes he and a lot of other senators missed were meaningless, lopsided roll calls in which one vote couldn't have made a difference -- Lieberman convinced Connecticut that Weicker was a lazy bum. It terrified every incumbent. Realizing that such a campaign could work against any one of them, the rest of the Senate suddenly became obsessive about not missing votes. Near-perfect voting attendance is now standard.

Lieberman's lack of an extraordinary Senate record helped, too, because the one thing Gore was not looking for was someone who would steal the limelight. Lieberman's Mr. Rogers style seemed perfect -- a bit warmer than Cheney but no challenge to Gore's domination of the ticket and the campaign. Ooops. Anyone flipping back and forth from Today to Good Morning America to Bryant Gumbel's Early Show on the first day Gore and Lieberman campaigned together would have been hard pressed to catch Gore even answering a question. Lieberman was cast as the star, Gore the sidekick who occasionally managed to butt his way in: "Katie, could I comment on that?"

"Quickly."

"Katie, if I could speak to this."

"Very quickly."

There was a lot of talk about how Bush had to be careful not to choose a running mate who would upstage him but none about Gore having to worry about it. Now that their running mates are in place, though, Gore has that problem and Bush doesn't. In fact, Lieberman is so much more relaxed, so much more comfortable in his own skin, that Gore looks stiffer than ever. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Gore, Lieberman is, for the first time in his life, charismatic.

Now that the candidates are off and running -- Bush and Cheney against Clinton and Gore, Lieberman against Clinton, and Lieberman against Bush and Cheney -- Gore has to climb his way back to the top of the ticket before he can really run against anyone.


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