Editor's note: On August 3, after this story was published, Vice President Gore announced that he had narrowed his list of possible running mates to six people plus one "wild card." By August 6, insiders suggested that Gore had narrowed his choices to three -- and that Joseph Lieberman was one of those three. For the first time in American history, it appears there is a genuine possibility of a Jewish vice-presidential candidate. It's veepstakes season again, and that means all the most predictable traditions of American politics are on display: the leaked lists of "sure things" who actually stand little chance, the denials of interest from prospects who are maneuvering feverishly to be picked, the media predictions that are certain to be wrong. Study those leaked lists and one very non-traditional development jumps out, though: A striking number of the possible veeps are Jewish. There has never been a Jewish major-party presidential or vice-presidential candidate, nor a Jewish occupant of the other White House "job": first lady. Now it appears that the chance of a major-party Jewish vice-presidential candidate is the highest it has been in the nation's history. Four Jewish figures are being prominently mentioned as possible running mates for Al Gore: Senators Joe Lieberman, Dianne Feinstein, and Russell Feingold, and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Additionally, Gore is considering, on the direct recommendation of President Clinton, another prospective veep candidate with a strong Jewish link: Defense Secretary William Cohen, whose father was Jewish, but who now practices the Unitarian faith. (No Jewish running mate is believed to be under consideration by George W. Bush.) Jewish politicians have tried for the big prizes before, with Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 and the same state's Senator Arlen Specter vying for the Republican nod in 1996. And overall, Jews have done well in national voting: 26 Jewish members have sat in the Senate, and 147 in the House, according to the forthcoming book "Jews in American Politics" by Sandy Maisel, a professor at Colby College in Maine. But it's believed that the closest a Jewish person ever came to a major-party White House nomination was in 1972, when Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff turned down an offer to be George McGovern's running mate. (Many Democrats declined the honor of standing with McGovern, knowing the party would be steamrolled that year.) Traditionally, political strategists have assumed that it would be very difficult for a Jew to win the Democratic or Republican presidential nomination--consider how rare Catholic nominees have been, though Catholics significantly outnumber Jews. A Jewish veep, the traditional assumption holds, would simply "sink the ticket," as pols say. Though anti-Semitism has long been in decline in American life--polls conducted by the Anti-Defamation League show that today only 12 % of Americans agree with statements such as "the Jews have too much power," a much lower percentage than endorsed such sentiments in the past--the idea that there would be a backlash against a Jew on a national ticket is deeply rooted in political conventional wisdom. But this view is not necessarily correct. "Polls show that voter resistance to Jewish candidates has been declining steadily for many years," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "At this point, voters might rebel against a self-proclaimed atheist, or against an extreme fundamentalist, but any of the mainstream beliefs, including Catholicism and Judaism, seem fine, at least according to what voters tell pollsters." Kitty Dukakis is arguably the only Jewish person ever to have "run" for one of the nation's top offices, as she would have become first lady had Michael Dukakis prevailed in 1988. During that election, there was some fear on the part of Democratic consultants that the Duke's wife's faith would hurt his vote total. Surely if any presidential candidate picked a Jewish running mate, at least some votes would be lost--in the South, among some Catholics, some blacks (the black-Jewish coalition exists today only in PBS documentaries), and perhaps among the burgeoning Arab-American vote in Michigan, which may be one of this year's key swing states. The majority of Americans today may hold no bias against Jewish candidates, but if even 12 % do, that's more than enough to cause problems in a close national race. Also, a Jewish running mate might bring out voters' unconscious worries; in the South, especially, many traditional Democratic voters are uneasy with big-city liberalism, which (rightly or wrongly) Jewish politicians are presumed to represent. But would the remnants of anti-Semitism be enough to "sink the ticket," or would the positive qualities of Jewish candidates outweigh any bias? And are there certain "types" of Jews who would be more or less palatable to the public?
What's interesting about all the potential Jewish running mates is that their faith identity is basically a side issue to their other qualities, good and bad. In the past, when names of Jewish vice-presidential contenders have been bandied about for Democrats, campaign consultants have always replied, "What's the point?" Meaning: Since most Jewish voters already support Democrats, there's no need to reel them in. (After all, you can't carry New York twice.) The fact that Jewish running mates are finally being considered for their merits, and not because of identity politics, may be what's most heartening about the whole turn of events.