Vice presidential selections don't win or lose elections. A running mate can provide a little lift or a bit of drag, but the choice of one is important, in the first weeks after it is made, mostly for what it reveals about the candidate doing the choosing. In this regard, Joe Lieberman's nomination, contrary to the media's nearly universal high praise, is likely to make Al Gore's election a little more difficult.
The reason is not Lieberman's religion. This most religious country has come a long way. Gore is likely to benefit from the courage he showed in breaking through one of the last remaining barriers.
The Lieberman nomination makes Gore's election harder because it confuses what this election is about. Amid the celebratory press, no one has mentioned that the Gore campaign is spending the week before its convention echoing Bush's message.
What is the central message of the Bush campaign? Clearly, the Philadelphia convention was designed to blur differences between the parties on issues, while making the campaign about "returning honor to the Oval Office." What is the message of the Lieberman nomination? Clearly, his selection blurs differences between the parties on issues, while bringing "integrity and rectitude" to the Democratic ticket.
In nominating Lieberman, Gore seems to be conceding the preposterous Republican proposition that this election is about Clinton's past behavior rather than America's future. The 24-hour news and views industry will now spend the next two weeks replaying Lieberman's speech denouncing Clinton and arguing about whether this adequately insulates Gore.
But if this election is about Clinton's past misbehavior, Gore and Democrats lose. And Lieberman doesn't even buy Gore much protection. Republicans are already trumpeting that while Lieberman was censoring the president, Gore was leading the cheers for him.
For Gore to win, the election has to be about the future, and the contrast on basic kitchen-table issues has to be made clear. Bush is seeking a mandate for notably radical measures--privatizing Social Security, turning Medicare into a voucher system, using public school money for private vouchers, enacting tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthy. If Gore makes the differences clear, while putting forth an agenda to bolster Social Security and Medicare, invest in education and children, lift the minimum wage and stand with workers, he can win.
Lieberman's nomination blurs these distinctions. As Newt Gingrich noted, Lieberman has supported measures akin to the Bush agenda in Social Security, Medicare and schools. Lieberman's liberal record on choice, the environment and gun control, and his moralizing on the media, can reinforce Gore's appeal to upscale suburban "soccer moms." But to win, Gore has to mobilize the votes of working and poor people, and that requires a lunch bucket economic agenda that counters Bush's gilded age proposals. It is harder to do so when your running mate supported a similar agenda.
As chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, the corporate money caucus of the Democratic Party, Lieberman also does little to engage the activist base of the party. Democratic pollster Peter Hart says Gore was aiming at independent voters, that Lieberman gives him a way of "getting to the middle." But note that George W., the leader in the polls, chose the very conservative Dick Cheney to stroke and excite his base. Newt Gingrich is no longer around to mobilize Democrats for Gore.
In an election certain to break the record for low voter participation, turnout will be crucial. It can't help that the Republican base is energized, while Democratic activists are dismayed by the DLC takeover and distracted by Ralph Nader.
Many in the Gore campaign realize this. Some argue that the Lieberman-inspired replay of Clinton bashing is a necessary catharsis to move to the larger fight. And the release this week of a "previously unpublished opinion piece" by Lieberman describing his turn against privatizing Social Security suggests that Lieberman is willing to shed some of his New Dem designer fashion for more populist garb.
All this, however, increases the burden on Gore. Next week's Democratic convention must turn the country's attention from Clinton and the past to Gore and the future. But no matter what he says, Lieberman's appearance on Wednesday will be presented by the media as a continuing rebuke to Clinton. That leaves Gore's speech to set the agenda, and tell those who are still listening what this campaign is about.
Bush's lead is soft and surmountable. Gore has a lot of lift under his wings from the good economy. But the takeoff has to start now. That better be a hell of a speech.
The writer is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company