No sooner did Gore make his announcement than the wire services began studding their copy with references to his Judaism. The television stations went to work beaming out pictures of him wearing a yarmulke. A complex individual is already being flattened out into an easily identifiable cultural symbol.
Yes, Gore's choice is audacious and has generated the requisite pre-convention buzz. And yes, Lieberman has a distinguished legislative career. But by choosing Lieberman, Gore seems to have slighted another ethnic constituency whose loyalty to the Democratic Party has been unswerving: African-Americans. Gore passed up a chance to make an even bolder move by choosing a black running mate. And his choice of Lieberman instead could hurt him in the long run among this same constituency. Alienated blacks who might have cast their ballots for Gore may stay away from the ballot box altogether in November--the net effect being a Bush victory.
For the time being, Gore seems to be pleased with his choice. As long as the cameras keep clicking, he can continue to suggest that he is a politician of some significance. As the front-runner in a close race, his Republican rival George W. Bush was careful not to pick a polarizing figure (such as his erstwhile competitor, Arizona Sen. John McCain) who might eclipse him or create an unstable campaign atmosphere. As the underdog, however, Gore is desperate to corral swing votes and favorable media buzz by picking a candidate who would add kick to a campaign that has gone flaccid over the past month.
Furthermore, by picking a social conservative, Gore's advisers hope to mask Gore's weakness: that he has failed to present himself as a moderate who can appeal to undecided centrists. In Lieberman, they now have such a candidate, someone who has championed family values and condemned Clinton's sexual indiscretions as "immoral." Gore clearly hopes to garner votes among independents and moderate Republicans.
Yet the selection of Lieberman could stir up a backlash among black American voters, who long ago signed an oath of loyalty to the Democratic Party but have yet to be rewarded with a black American candidate.
Cedric Muhammad, a reporter for blackelectorate.com, expresses sentiments that may be widespread among black voters. For years, says Muhammad, the Democratic Party avoided nominating a black American for vice president, for fear of a prejudicial backlash among whites. "Well, a lot of people are anti-Semitic, too," declares Muhammad. "Why hasn't that same logic been applied with Lieberman?"
"According to the feedback I've received," says Muhammad, "a lot of people are upset that of the seven vice-presidential candidates that Gore looked at, not one was black. Is Gore saying that there is not one black American in this country that is qualified to be vice president?"
Asked whether he himself might be guilty of reducing a complex political decision to a matter of race, Muhammad says: "Race is a legitimate factor. So I wouldn't say that a group of people who focus on it are going to an extreme. I mean blacks that feel slighted are still going to vote for Lieberman, because he's a Democrat. But my point is that blacks vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Furthermore, blacks represent the only ethnic voting group that increased during the 1998 congressional elections. So, you would think that if blacks were giving a huge portion of votes to the Democrats, then that would be a factor in who gets picked as vice-presidential nominee. I do think it's a legitimate consideration."
The major implication, of course, is that the Democratic Party is simply taking the black vote for granted. Blacks feel strongly that they have done their part for the party, but they still don't get the same respect as Jewish Americans. When Clinton came to appointing new members of the Supreme Court, he picked Jews every time. And now, in Gore's selection of a vice-presidential candidate, an American Jew has eclipsed the possibility of nominating a black American. Slowly, subtly, the rift between Jews and blacks has widened within the party.
While Muhammad does not believe that Gore's failure to consider a black vice-presidential candidate will cause a mass exodus of blacks from the party, he estimates that it might account for a 5% to 10% loss of votes. The bottom line, according to Muhammad: "Bush's chances are better today than they were yesterday."