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Jewish Journal

What Makes Joe Run (So Well)?

by James D

September 28, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Hadassah and Joseph Lieberman at a havdalah service.

Hadassah and Joseph Lieberman at a havdalah service.

What's with Joe Lieberman?

Less than two months ago, when Al Gore tapped Lieberman as his vice-presidential running mate, pundits predicted the Connecticut senator would put the nation to sleep. Sure, he has integrity, they said, but he's hardly any more animated a campaigner than the termite-ridden Gore.

Well, big surprise: the Gore-Lieberman ticket has surged. This week's polls point to a neck-and-neck race, or even a modest lead for the Democrats.

And Joe Lieberman, the experts agree, has connected with the public in a big way, a major factor in the ticket's changing fortunes.

What has Lieberman brought to the electoral mix that has sent a jolt through the Gore campaign? Here are a few answers.

Style

Lieberman, the first Jew on a major party ticket, is incredibly grateful that he was picked for this honor and not at all reluctant to show it.

Gore comes across as the plodding, hyper-serious career politician who doesn't have a life outside government. His opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is the genial preppy, but he is so tightly scripted by his handlers that his affability seems like just another campaign pose.

Lieberman is like a kid who never expected to be where he is and is enjoying every second of it.Some of Lieberman's gee-whiz enthusiasm may be artifice. He is a tough, ambitious politician who has had his eyes set on higher office since he came to Washington in 1989.

Still, there's something refreshing about a candidate who doesn't pretend he's just running because the other guys are so bad or because it's the only thing he knows how to do.

And voters may be tiring of the bitter partisanship that has gridlocked Washington for the past six years. The low-key Lieberman, liked and admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, offers them something else, and they seem to be in a buying mood.

Judaism

When he was selected, some Jews worried that his Orthodox Judaism would trigger an outpouring of anti-Semitism.

Quite the opposite has happened. Lieberman's overt religiosity, spotlighted by the candidate himself, has struck a responsive chord among non-Jewish voters who want religious values to play more of a role in official decision making but are scared of the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells, who are seen as promoting narrowly sectarian agendas.

Lieberman's Orthodoxy is also a novelty that's proven irresistible to reporters bored with the other candidates.

Reporters can't go wrong writing about Lieberman's Shabbat adventures or how he'll handle the High Holy Days, but they have to handle these stories gently to avoid even the appearance of criticizing Judaism. And his Judaism provides some protection against the late-night talk-show lambasting that, increasingly, helps shape images of candidates.

In one of the year's most bizarre twists, the only Americans who have made an issue of Lieberman's Judaism are vocal clusters of right-wing Orthodox Jews, backed by vehemently anti-Gore conservatives, who argue he isn't really Orthodox.

Chemistry

Numerous reporters have pointed out that Al Gore seems more animated and more able to connect with voters when he's around Lieberman. That's why the campaign has staged a number of joint appearances instead of keeping them apart to cover as much geographical ground as possible.

There's a personal chemistry here that is interesting to watch; the Bush-Dick Cheney partnership is dull in comparison. Lieberman livens up the Gore act; Cheney, a plodding, unhappy-appearing campaigner, seems to be a drag on Bush, who doesn't give any indication he's as pleased with his vice-presidential choice as Gore is with his.

Degrees of Separation

Both presidential candidates are trying to live down their pasts.

Gore needs to distance himself from Bill Clinton. Lieberman's presence on the Democratic ticket makes it much harder for the Republicans to use their Monica super-weapon, and it helps Gore more effectively exploit his biggest advantage - the strong economy.

Bush wants badly to live down his political heredity, but as the campaign progresses, he sounds more and more like his dad, right down to the eminently quotable malapropisms.

And at his side is Cheney, a living link to the vanquished administration of George H.W. Bush.

Cheney, the senior Bush's defense secretary, even looks old, especially compared to the boyish Lieberman. With Cheney on the ticket, the Democrats don't have to speak it aloud: If you liked the first Bush administration, you'll love the second.

By selecting the boyish, Jewish Lieberman, Gore instantly created the impression that something fresh is in the political wind. By choosing Cheney, Bush emphasized his links to a Republican establishment in Washington going back to Richard Nixon.

Cheney, too, was a fresh face - but it was back in the 1970s, when he was President Gerald Ford's chief of staff.

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