By custom, vice presidential candidates get the nod because they appeal to some highly sought-after constituency. Perhaps it's a state rich in electoral votes. A prized ethnic group. Or maybe just the right or left wing of the party. Look diligently enough, though, and you'll almost certainly strike upon some group the nominee was trying to propitiate. Seemingly, it appears Al Gore ignored this rule in picking Joe Lieberman. But that's only because Gore was reaching out to a constituency you might not have thought of--that maddeningly small, but terribly important, constituency called the Washington press corps.
Gore faces many challenges over the next two months. But his greatest obstacle may be the simple fact that most political reporters don't like him. I don't mean kinda--I mean, they really don't like him. For better or worse, most Beltway reporters view the vice president with a mix of bemusement and contempt. They may not think much of George W. Bush, and they may not vote for him. But the feelings the Texas governor generates just don't compare to those reserved for the vice president. Consider how Gore's media image has changed over recent years. A decade ago, Gore was viewed as an attractive, if rather precocious, rising star of his party. Today one often finds him portrayed as deceptive, ambitious, craven, opportunist, and unprincipled as well as inept--a caricaturist's catalogue of political ills. Familiarity may breed contempt, of course. But every nook and cranny of Gore's personality has been pulled and pried at until even positive attributes like curiosity and intellect sometimes get warped into bad qualities like haughtiness and condescension.
Some of this is Gore's own fault. He lacks the common touch. He has changed positions on some issues. He chats up the traveling press far less often than his rival George W. Bush. And if you look at Gore on the hustings, when he's waiting to be introduced for a speech, you'll often see a man who looks distressingly ill at ease. One of Bill Clinton's great strengths has been his intuitive ability, in the face of withering attacks, to roll with the punches and dole out amiability and fury in more or less the proper amounts. Clinton sometimes thrived on those attacks; but not Al Gore. They've battered him into a self-protective shell that has only aggravated the press's and many people's sense of him as overcautious and calculating, scripted and thus inauthentic.
But none of these shortcomings fully accounts for the press's sour view of the vice president. At the heart of the edginess in the coverage of Gore is lingering bitterness and consternation over his boss. Gore has gotten himself trapped in the web of the press's vexed feelings about Bill Clinton. For years Beltway journalists watched Clinton slip the noose again and again in countless scandals, both real and imagined. For many, the more he cheated political death, the more frenzied they grew in their efforts to find some scandal or outrage that would finally sink him. The failure of impeachment and the president's still commanding levels of public support were just baffling to most political reporters. And the punditry has become wedded to the notion that somewhere, somehow there must be some reckoning for Clinton's sins. That's the genesis of that obsessive media talk about Bill Clinton's scandal-shattered legacy, and also the root of the deeply held belief that Gore logically must--and should--be paying the price for Clinton's transgressions.
Of course, this simplistic morality play has the added benefit of containing an element of truth: Though Clinton would be elected for a third term despite media misgivings, public opinion polls indeed show that discontentment with Gore is shared by a portion of the public as well as the press. But one needn't dismiss the notion of "Clinton fatigue" out of hand or blame the press for all Gore's troubles to realize that the vice president's relentlessly negative press has been a persistent, significant drag on his campaign. Getting out of Clinton's shadow would have been a key part of Al Gore's convention strategy even if Bill Clinton were a paragon of domestic virtue. The fact that Clinton isn't only makes the need all the more acute. But most journalists already look at Gore through such a critical lens that any such effort would almost certainly have become fodder for endless nit-picking and second-guessing.
That's where Joe Lieberman comes in. Liberals tend to view the Lieberman pick through the prism of ideology. But in the hothouse atmosphere of official Washington, the choice has an altogether different resonance. Though the two men are rather similar both personally and politically, the media has tended to view Gore and Lieberman as something like polar opposites. Reporters dip every Gore comment in an acid bath of picayune analysis, but they just can't get enough of Joe Lieberman. To date, most have focused on Lieberman's very public rebuke of Bill Clinton's sexual misdeeds, but the romance goes much deeper. Lieberman is another one of those moderate Senate Democrats whose middle-of-the-road politics and above-mere-partisanship reputation has secured him a permanent place as one of Washington's good guys.
With the relaxed but confident and amiable style Lieberman displayed while addressing the convention delegates, it's not hard to see why reporters might take a liking to him. But the affection goes beyond style. Before anyone heard the name Monica Lewinsky, Lieberman was chalking up points with the press by bucking his party's line during the 1997 campaign finance investigations, standing apart from partisan contention and generally appealing to the press's belief that partisanship is a real evil of our political life. A senior aide to one Senate Democrat, who praised the Lieberman choice, couldn't help showing a hint of residual frustration at the way his own boss's more consistently liberal proposals fail to gain the plaudits routinely heaped on Lieberman. "It's the moderate thing," he told me. "The mind-set of the press in Washington is that they're tired of the climate where everything becomes a battle for partisan gain. With Lieberman and [the late Senator John] Chafee, the press would turn and say, 'Finally, someone who's trying to get something done.'" Add to this the fact that Lieberman is closely associated with feel-good issues like V-chips and cleaning up Hollywood, and the fact that he's right on the Clinton issue, and you have someone the press is just bound to love.
Lieberman has cultivated an image that embodies all the most-prized virtues of every political journalist who's ever taken pen to paper to knock Bill Clinton--he's the icon of character over expediency, principles over polls, and statesmanship over partisanship. For almost three years, the D.C. press corps has been thirsting for someone to give them public validation of their take on the whole Lewinsky mess. And in a sense, when Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman, he did just that. (You might even say that Lieberman was Al Gore's pound of flesh.) Without Lieberman by Gore's side, any effort to get outside Clinton's shadow might have been doomed to a death of a thousand pen pricks. With Lieberman making the case on Gore's behalf, the reaction will likely be very different.
Just How Moderate?
Of course, just because Lieberman has become the darling of a press corps that often values professed high-mindedness and independence over commitment and sustained belief, we shouldn't necessarily disdain the Connecticut senator. Retiring senators Bob Kerrey and Pat Moynihan have also profited by striking this pose of above-it-all statesmanship. But Lieberman is a much different creature, both in the substance of his politics and in his relationship to his party. The halls of L.A.'s Staples Center did crackle occasionally with liberal voices disgruntled by Lieberman's centrist voting record. "We're all lying about Lieberman's [record]," one liberal backbencher from the House was quick to tell me. But another prominent House liberal had nothing but praise for Gore's pick and dismissed any concern about the ideological coloration Lieberman might bring to the ticket. "He talks more moderate than he votes," he said with a smile. "If I were a moderate, I'd think he was a faker."
Nor has Lieberman lacerated his party in the manner of a Kerrey or a Moynihan. Though Lieberman has sometimes shown a streak of opportunism in standing aside from his party at critical moments, and has maddened Senate Democrats by introducing bills and proposals that muddied the differences between the parties, he's never descended to the level of petty-mindedness. Even as Lieberman was prepping for his acceptance speech on the convention's third night, Kerrey took it upon himself to let fly a gratuitous slap against the president. After the Clintons had scurried out of town to make way for Gore, Kerrey couldn't help telling USA TODAY that the president "must stay off the playing field" or be responsible for a "tragic" loss for his party in the fall. "Don't comment on the vice president's race," the acidic Nebraskan intoned. "Don't comment on the vice president's views... . Be as silent as possible until the 7th of November." You'd never expect such a performance from Joe Lieberman--even if he hadn't gotten the call from Al Gore.
So how will it play? Few expect Lieberman to take on the attack dog role often assigned to vice presidential candidates. But a measure of partisanship and rhetorical fulsomeness is an unavoidable part of the job. By signing on to be number two, he's agreed to be Gore's number one when it comes to cheerleading. The irony and interest of watching Lieberman don the veep mantle is his need and apparent readiness to adopt the partisan stance his admirers have long praised him for shunning. One can't help but see a little befuddlement on the faces of many reporters when Lieberman mounts the stage, praises Gore to the stars, and pleads the importance of electing the Democratic ticket. Just what are they to make of the high praising the low? The key question now is whether Lieberman's warm-and-fuzzy image will rub off on Gore or whether Gore's sour relations with the media will start to color their views of Lieberman.
Early reviews have given hints of both possibilities--predictably enough, breaking down on lines of ideological sympathy. But the preponderance of the commentary points in a hopeful direction for the ticket. Lieberman's convention speech contained words and phrases and gestures and relish that one doesn't expect to hear in his voice. But the partisan jabs--if one can call them that--were happy, enthusiastic, almost reluctant sounding, and thus terribly effective. Having Lieberman on the ticket gives Gore a kinder press. It's given Beltway pundits their due, whether they deserved it or not; and for that reason alone, he's a solid tactical pick.
Lieberman may end up teaching Gore something as well. Lieberman has about him a touch of the happy warrior, a quality marvelously on display in his convention debut. He may be the anti-Clinton, but like Clinton, he can lacerate his opponents gently, and with a smile, an ability Gore has never mastered. That skill could be the missing ingredient Gore needs to win this election. Lieberman's gotten the press to give Gore another look; if Gore can learn to wound his opponents kindly, he may get those prized swing voters to do the same. ¤