New Democrats would not be wrong to view this year's Democratic national convention as their own victory rally. Though the party platform offered brave words to comfort liberals, the details were safely moderate. Running mate Joe Lieberman, president of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), is about as centrist a figure as the Democratic Party has outside the deep South. A New Republic cover exulted, "How the Democrats Buried the Left," citing Lieberman, Congressman Dick Gephardt's rapprochement with Gore, the relative isolation of labor, and the New Democrat themes that dominate Gore's campaign.
But is burying the left a smart thing for Democrats to do? Where does it leave the labor movement's alliance with the Democratic Party? And does it strengthen or weaken Gore's chances to be the next president?
The best thing about Lieberman is the way he trumps the ace of the Christian right. You want faith, we got faith. You want religious tolerance, well maybe you don't. It suddenly becomes harder for anyone to proclaim that this is a Christian country without sounding crudely anti-Semitic. It drives a useful wedge between Bush and the Born Again right. Yes, Lieberman risks the loss of votes from hardcore Jew-baiters. But this is a small risk. The bigger risk is the signal to labor and the rest of the liberal wing of the party.
There was an interesting asymmetry in how Bush and Gore balanced the need to court swing voters while energizing their bases. Bush picked a very conservative running mate in Dick Cheney, gave his base a very conservative platform, and reached out to the center with symbolism. Gore, by contrast, picked a centrist running mate and fed symbolism to his party base.
The risk to Gore is not that the labor leadership sits on its hands, much less that it defects to Ralph Nader. The major union presidents, even Steve Yokich of the Auto Workers and George Becker of Steel, have concluded that a Republican president is just too terrifying. The unions will do their usual heavy lifting for the Democratic ticket and will be rewarded with their usual role of caboose on the train. But the risk is that America's working families won't be energized.
Gore, in selecting a running mate, considered the need to shore up different vulnerable flanks. After the China/WTO mess, he needed to reassure the labor movement and the party's progressive wing that he really was a friend (Gephardt? Durbin? Mitchell? Kerry?). He entertained fantasies of being competitive in the South (Edwards? Graham?). And after Monica Lewinsky, he needed to keep the Republicans from tying his own candidacy to the seamier side of the Clinton era. In the end, Gore decided he needed more insurance on the morality issue than on any other--hence, Lieberman. This is yet another gift from one William Jefferson Clinton, part of his legacy, you might say.
Had Clinton kept his paws off Monica, Joe Lieberman would not be Gore's running mate. It's funny how a dalliance in the Oval Office catapults an orthodox Jew onto a major party ticket--a kind of political butterfly effect. Gore's own personal life is beyond reproach. Except for Bimbogate, Democrats need little insurance on matters of misplaced presidential passion. What they need is political passion.
In our last issue, Stanley and Anna Greenberg ["Adding Values," August 28, 2000] argued convincingly that family-values issues are often pocketbook issues. Certainly, Democrats do better by emphasizing the link between healthy families and traditionally Democratic themes such as support for working families, better schools, child care, and reliable health coverage. Beyond that, morality and faith are private matters. But by choosing Lieberman, Gore decided that he needed to invoke a more Republican brand of family values. This may buy some defensive insurance, but how does it attract wavering working- and middle-class voters?
If Gore, with a lot of union help, does manage to get elected, he owes labor big-time. In the Clinton years, the unions got help mostly on defensive issues. They kept reinventing-government types from giving away Social Security and from repealing prevailing union wages on government contracts. They slowed down the stampede to school vouchers and kindred privatizations. They got the president and vice president to make some important quiet phone calls in organizing campaigns. They got a friendlier National Labor Relations Board. All of this riled the New Democrats. But what unions did not get was support for global labor standards, much less real protection of workers' rights to join a union at home.
Bill Clinton may be something of a unique specimen. As Clinton showed yet again convention week, he balances the New Democrat and liberal wings of the party better than any other politician, certainly better than Al Gore. His own convention speech offered a devastating rebuttal to Bush's rendition of the past eight years. Liberals who gagged on the WTO, gays less than thrilled with don't ask/don't tell, and New Democrats unhappy with affirmative action were all cheering in the aisles.
It's not at all clear that Gore can replicate this act or that the New Democrat formula can work for more than one administration. Gore needs all the help he can get, from both wings of the party. Should Gore win, the first thing he owes his union allies is real support for the right to organize. The last thing he needs to do is bury the left. But this is the New Democrats' show. And if Gore loses, the DLC will have a lot of explaining to do. ¤