The mainstream media exultation that greeted the selection of Joseph Lieberman by Al Gore is cause for instantaneous suspicion. Like the “authenticity” attributed earlier this year to John McCain by the media claque, the saintly qualities now ascribed to the Connecticut Senator by his admirers in the press corps are exaggerated beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief. A discouraging portent is that Mr. Lieberman promotes himself as an intimate of such figures as Don Imus and Bill Bennett (a contradiction of staggering proportions in itself).
What seem to recommend him most to the thunderous herd of Washington worthies are his annoying tendencies to seek common cause with conservative Republicans and to endorse whatever fashionable nostrums preoccupy the opinion-making elites at any given moment, such as “tort reform,” school vouchers, or Social Security privatization. That’s aside from his timely outburst against the President, of course, which is his most important elite credential of all.
In fact, his status as moral exemplar has little or nothing to do with anything he has achieved in public service, and everything to do with the parochial symbolic interests of the Beltway elite. Whatever else he has done or said in Washington, the outstanding moment of Mr. Lieberman’s career came in September 1998, when he took the Senate floor to denounce Bill Clinton’s “immoral” conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
The unexpected elevation of Mr. Lieberman, so long as he is perceived as an unforgiving Clinton critic, may serve to satisfy the punditry’s continuing fixation with punishing the most popular President of the postwar era. And perhaps as a result, the Vice President will no longer be regarded as a surrogate for Mr. Clinton and will enjoy more balanced press coverage in the months leading up to Election Day. He could not be treated much worse than he has been up until now, according to a remarkable study released some weeks ago by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
That study-prepared by some of the profession’s most conscientious figures but only lightly covered by newspapers such as The New York Times -showed the gross bias against Mr. Gore and the slavish favoritism toward Republican George W. Bush that has so disfigured election coverage this year. Descriptions of the Texas governor have been heavily weighted toward “new” and “compassionate,” while those of the Vice President have emphasized questions about his honesty and, of course, his “authenticity” as a human being. It is just possible that the goring of the Vice President by the media will become less violent from now on.
If overnight opinion surveys have any meaning, the Democratic nominee has already benefited from the Lieberman effect. This is not to suggest that Mr. Gore’s choice was insincere or calculated. Despite his outward manifestations of support, he reportedly felt terrible disappointment and justified anger toward the President over the Lewinsky scandal, and his selection may well reflect those feelings-as well as his sense that Mr. Lieberman, a “New Democrat” long associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, will fit comfortably into a Gore administration.
Yet after the initial thrill is gone, the same commentators who welcomed Mr. Lieberman’s nomination are just as likely to interpret Mr. Gore’s decision in the most unflattering terms possible. The “integrity” of his running mate can be seen as underscoring his own lack of same, just as the maturity of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Dick Cheney has been regarded as evidence that Mr. Bush lacks “gravitas.” It is as if Mr. Gore had admitted that everything negative written about him until now contains an element of truth.
What so many pundits praise as Mr. Lieberman’s refreshing departures from Democratic orthodoxy, such as his views on Social Security, education and tort law, also present problems for Mr. Gore. Already, Republicans are pointing out the obvious contradiction between the Vice President’s positions on these issues and those adopted by Mr. Lieberman.
How the Democrats finesse those disagreements will affect the enthusiasm of the party’s basic constituencies, even though Mr. Lieberman’s actual voting record is not especially conservative. His ratings from labor, environmental, minority and women’s organizations are favorable enough to categorize him as broadly liberal, and he is certainly not the ardent right-winger portrayed by those who seek to characterize his nomination as pure political opportunism.
Let’s hope that Mr. Lieberman downplays both his moralizing and his cultivation of favorable press, and instead focuses on the issues that distinguish him and Mr. Gore from their Republican opponents. It is truly inspiring that an Orthodox Jew-or for that matter any Jewish politician-will appear on the ticket of a major party. He will do a service to his country if his faith inspires him to speak out for the principles of social justice that have always drawn the great majority of Jewish voters to his party.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.