Lieberman looks like the perfect running mate

Al Gore picks his vice-presidential candidate - a Jewish Senator who was the Democrats' conscience during the Lewinsky scandal
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The Independent US

The clearest signal that Vice-President Al Gore was inclined to choose Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate came on Sunday from Ed Rendell, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He said Mr Lieberman would be "almost be a slam-dunk" for the nomination if he were Episcopalian rather than Jewish.

The clearest signal that Vice-President Al Gore was inclined to choose Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate came on Sunday from Ed Rendell, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He said Mr Lieberman would be "almost be a slam-dunk" for the nomination if he were Episcopalian rather than Jewish.

Mr Rendell, the Jewish former mayor of Philadelphia, is one of the few people who could have said such a thing without immediately being condemned as an anti-Semite. With the benefit of hindsight, his remark can also be seen as clever kite-flying. Would there be a reaction? And would it be horror or approval? The answer came back as muffled approval, and no hostility. The news was leaked by the Gore campaign at 7am yesterday, in time to catch the breakfast television shows.

In Democratic circles, the initial response was that Mr Gore had accomplished a master-stroke. At once, he had dispelled doubts about his own ability to make bold decisions - by selecting the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate - and thrown off the burden of guilt-by-association with President Clinton. How heavy that burden would be was apparent from the attacks, direct and implied, on Mr Clinton through last week's Republican convention, where Republicans presented themselves as the party that would restore "decency", "integrity" and "respect" to the White House.

Mr Lieberman sealed his reputation as the moral conscience of the Senate and of the Democratic Party when he pronounced one of the earliest, and most dignified rebukes of President Clinton as the full degradation of the Monica Lewinsky affair was just becoming apparent. In a Senate speech uttered more in sorrow than in anger, Mr Lieberman described Mr Clinton's conduct straight out as "immoral".

"In this case," he told his stunned fellow Senators, "the President apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age and did so in the workplace in the vicinity of the Oval Office." Such behaviour, he said, "is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behaviour to the American public... The President's relationship with Ms Lewinsky not only contradicted the values he has publicly embraced over the last six years, it has, I fear, compromised his moral authority."

The effect of his speech was all the sharper because Mr Clinton and Mr Lieberman were long-time friends. Both graduates of Yale Law School, Mr Clinton campaigned for Mr Lieberman his first State Senate races (at a time when it was a risk for a young and ambitious southerner to campaign for a Jew); Mr Lieberman then returned the compliment in 1991, when he became the first Democratic Senator to support Mr Clinton's - then outsider - bid for the White House.

In selecting Mr Lieberman, Mr Gore not only made it much harder for Republicans to make mud from the Clinton scandals stick to him. He also showed himself a match for his Republican opponent, George W Bush, in not shrinking from nominating someone at least his equal in intellect and experience.

After Mr Bush had chosen Richard Cheney, a former White House chief of staff and defence secretary, the pressure was on Mr Gore to choose someone of comparable stature or risk losing the advantage of his own experience of high office as a campaign pitch. Mr Lieberman meets that requirement completely, and more. As one member of Mr Gore's staff put it: "He can assume the presidency at a moment's notice; Gore trusts him, and he shares Gore's commitment to fight for American families."

Politically, Mr Lieberman is an almost ideal complement to Mr Gore. The son of a liquor store owner from Stamford, Connecticut, he is a north-easterner to balance Mr Gore's southern roots. While Mr Gore went to Vietnam, albeit briefly and as an army journalist, Mr Lieberman was an anti-war protester; however, he has since become a hawk on defence, arguing for "final victory" over Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and supporting US military intervention in Bosnia and Panama.

He is unwaveringly liberal on abortion, supported Mr Clinton's controversial welfare reforms, and advocates trials of school vouchers, to help poor children attend private schools. The Democrats as a party oppose school vouchers, which they do not believe help improve standards in state-run schools, but many black Americans favour them as offering a way for some children to escape the ghetto.

The calculation in the Gore camp appears to be that with his combination of high principle, integrity and experience, Mr Lieberman can help Mr Gore recapture the suburban women and white male voters he is apparently losing to Mr Bush because of the Clinton morality issue. How Mr Lieberman's religion will play with the wider electorate is another and, as senior Democrats admit, unknown element in the electoral equation.

Before the nomination became public, Ed Rendell said carefully: "I'm not sure that the people who would vote against us because Joe is Jewish aren't going to vote against us anyway." By which he meant the Christian fundamentalists of the South and perhaps also the increasing number of Arab and Muslim voters. Whether Mr Lieberman's nomination will have any impact on voting intentions of the fast-growing number of black American Muslims is a separate question.

As news of the nomination spread yesterday, the Gore camp took the precaution of citing some of Mr Lieberman's own statements to reassure people that his Orthodoxy wold not impair the business of government. In the light of joking comments that an enemy might attack on a Saturday and Mr Lieberman might not be prepared to push the nuclear button, it was made known that as a Senator, Mr Lieberman was prepared to vote on legislation and take part in important meetings on the Sabbath, but did not campaign.

Details of Mr Lieberman's Senate voting record released yesterday also suggested an even-handedness on foreign policy that would allay fears about partiality towards Israel. In 1992 he voted for the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia, and while an Israeli Cabinet minister welcomed the choice of Mr Lieberman as showing the maturity of American society, he said he would expect no major change in US Middle Eastern policy as a result.