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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Choice May Help Gore Slip From Clinton Shadow

August 08, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut has made history. Whether it also helps make Gore president remains to be seen.

The selection of Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, constitutes the most dramatic statement of religious inclusion since John F. Kennedy won election as the nation's first--and so far only--Catholic president in 1960. But it's not clear how much the pick can boost Gore in his immediate problem: overcoming Republican George W. Bush's double-digit lead in the polls.

Lieberman may be uniquely positioned to help Gore with one of his key dilemmas--redefining his relationship with President Clinton.

As the first prominent Democratic critic of Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, Lieberman should help Gore separate himself from the taint of Clinton's personal behavior. Still, Lieberman's role as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council--a centrist group influential in shaping Clinton's agenda--reaffirms the ticket's commitment to the president's policy direction.

Lieberman's culturally conservative streak--he has joined leading conservatives in criticizing the entertainment industry for excessive depictions of violence and sexuality--could strengthen Gore with morally traditional swing voters now flocking to Bush.

But Lieberman comes from a state that Gore should be able to win on his own. And, with his centrist voting record, he may do little to excite core Democratic constituencies such as blue-collar union members who have been tepid toward the vice president.

Also looming over the choice is the murky, and inherently unanswerable, question of whether Lieberman's religion will repel some voters. Most experts expect little effect, and two recent polls have found that fully 9 in 10 Americans now say they would vote for a Jewish president.

But analysts acknowledge that voters resistant to a Jewish president could be reluctant to admit those attitudes to a pollster, which means that no one can safely say how large a potential backlash, if any, may come.

"I think we do not know how much hidden hesitancy or worse is out there at the thought of the potential of a Jewish president," says Norman Podhoretz, a neoconservative author who has written extensively on Jewish assimilation in America.

Most experts--at least as of now--doubt that Lieberman's religion will figure in this campaign as overtly as Kennedy's did in the 1960 race. In that campaign, Kennedy faced such powerful religious resistance that he was compelled to make a dramatic appearance before a council of Protestant ministers in Houston. In his speech, Kennedy declared his commitment to the separation of church and state and pledged that he would neither "request or accept instruction on public policy from the pope."

Even so, Kennedy, as the first Catholic presidential nominee since Al Smith in 1928, received a smaller share of the vote among Southern evangelicals than Democrats usually did in that era, said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist who specializes in religion and politics.

Green, though, is dubious that Lieberman's religion will loom nearly as large. "We are much more tolerant of religious differences than we were then and Jews are really counted as one of the mainstream religions in America," he said.

There's considerable evidence--in both polling and practical politics--to support Green's view.

In the last several decades, there's been a decline in the percentage of the population expressing anti-Semitic statements, noted Tom W. Smith, a pollster at the National Opinion Research Center. As part of that trend, the share of Americans who say they would vote for a Jewish president has increased from about three-fifths in 1958 to the 90% now, Smith said.

That figure has held steady for about 30 years and is actually higher than the number for some other religious faiths, Smith said. In a 1996 survey he conducted, only 7 in 10 Americans said they would vote for an evangelical Christian and just 6 in 10 would support a Muslim (only about half said they would back an atheist).

To Smith, these figures suggest most voters are not hesitant about expressing their reluctance to vote for politicians because of their religious views. From that he concludes that even if some of those who say they would vote for a Jewish president are lying, the numbers are not huge.

Practical experience also suggests that a Jewish background has not been an insuperable barrier with non-Jewish voters. Eleven Jews serve in the 100-member U.S. Senate--a far greater percentage than the overall Jewish population of 2.3% for the nation as a whole. Six come from parts of the country with larger populations of Jews--the Northeast and California (whose two senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are both Jewish). But the other five represent Wisconsin (where both senators are Jewish), Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon.

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