On August 8, sources in the Gore campaign confirmed that Connecticut's Sen. Joseph Lieberman would get the Democratic VP nod. Inevitably, the ensuing spin has revolved around a central question--is this country ready for a Jewish vice-president?
Jewish politicians have tried for the big prizes before, with Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 and the same state's Sen. 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 Sen. 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. A 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?
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.)
But Lieberman brings a unique perspective to the ticket. Among the most-admired and most-collegial members of the Senate, he's known as a thoughtful centrist who is strong on traditional values: He helped found the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which pulled the party back from nutty liberalism and helped elect Clinton. Lieberman was the first national Democrat to call out Clinton while the president was still trying to brush off the Monica scandal, openly describing the president as "immoral," an overdone word perhaps, but the memory of this makes Lieberman seem independent-minded and could help distance a Gore ticket from Bill Clinton's negatives.
Lieberman is doubly interesting because he is the Senate's first Orthodox Jew: genuinely observant--walks to synagogue on Sabbath--though a member of the "modern Orthodox" movement, which is strictly observant of religious rules but open-minded on political and cultural matters. (Lieberman has already clarified that he could perform White House work on Saturdays if vice president, because Orthodoxy allows a Sabbath exception for those whose jobs serve the general public interest.) Lieberman as a candidate for the White House would be a fascinating case study in voter dynamics, since many on the Christian right, who would be wary of a leftish "cultural Jew," might be enthusiastic about Lieberman--the Christian right gets along well with Orthodox Judaism, because both believe in religious and moral strictness. Weirdly, Lieberman might turn off some of the Democratic Party's established "cultural Jew" support base, which is wary of Orthodoxy and tends to turn up its nose at the strictly observant. His downside: Lieberman divorced his first wife, which may make his moralizing about Clinton's family values seem sanctimonious.