By Gloria Borger
Al Gore's first stand
Lieberman pick may help Dems pack Clinton in the attic
I didn't think he had it in him. Not Vice President Al Gore, the careful, calculating, deliberate, no-controlling-legal-authority guy. Not tactical Al, looking for a state to win. Not political Al, looking for a youthful running mate to play the generational card. And certainly not special-interest Al, trying to keep labor and Hollywood happy.
But as it turns out, the Joe Lieberman pick wasn't just about Al. In fact, it was mostly about Bill, one last time. This time, though, we should be grateful. After all, if Bill Clinton had not behaved like Bill Clinton, would Al Gore have chosen a man known for not parsing his words when it comes to morality? Would he have picked someone precisely because of his unquestioned integrity? Would he have turned away from a salivating, attractive pack of loquacious, like-minded baby boomers to a somewhat conservative, solemn grown-up who is also, by the way, an Orthodox Jew? Lieberman called the pick a "miracle," but it was decidedly secular: The search for the Clinton antidote led Gore to a graceful, leaderly place. And on his own.
Sure, Bill Clinton publicly praised the Lieberman pick, calling the Connecticut senator a "bold thinker," who is "always full of new ideas." (In fact, Lieberman had some very old ideas in mind when he rebuked the president, calling his behavior in the Lewinsky affair "immoral," condemning him for "leaving the impression . . . [that what] he did within the White House is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader.") Still, Clinton has to know the truth: By praising Lieberman, he was seconding his own repudiation. Lieberman may be an old Clinton friend and a New Democrat. But unlike Clinton, he did consider impeachment to be a "great badge of shame." In fact, he was chosen because his unquestioned decency will finally help Al Gore change the subject. "This now begins to turn this into an election about the future, not Bill Clinton's past," says one top Gore adviser. "That's where we have to be."
Turning the tide. Now let it be said that all of those Gore allies who argued that "Clinton fatigue" was a journalistic invention were blowing smoke. When Dick Cheney tethered Gore to Clinton at the GOP convention ("We will never see one without thinking of the other"), independent voters nodded. In fact, says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, those who approve of Clinton's job performance but don't like him personally intend to vote for George W. Bush by a margin of 57 percent to 31 percent. "The moral issues were working against us," admits a Gore ally. "The margin for Bush was getting too large. This changes the flow."
To say the least. The risk-averse Gore has made a bold choice; the vice-presidential tagalong has committed his first act of leadership. And maybe Gore has learned a lesson here, too: that vice presidents need not be tone deaf nor substantively blind. No doubt Lieberman would keep his counsel and disagreements discreet, as did Gore. But with Lieberman, there would be no slavishness. He would not have led a post-impeachment pep rally, calling Bill Clinton "one of our greatest presidents." Can Gore be telling us that if he had it to do over again, neither would he? "Gore doesn't think of that as his finest hour," says a Gore adviser. So if Republicans run an ad placing Gore's goofy Clinton cheerleading alongside Lieberman's thoughtful chastisement of the president, so be it, says a Gore ally. "People will take this second act with Lieberman as his considered judgment."
On policy as well as morality. Lieberman lives politically to the right of where Al Gore campaigned in the primaries. He is for experimental school vouchers hated by the teachers unions, for tort reform hated by the trial lawyers, for self-censorship hated by the Hollywood moguls. He is a moderate who is unafraid to side with conservatives. "If he turns on his views, it will hurt him and the ticket," says Republican Bill Bennett, with whom Lieberman has teamed on cultural issues. When Bennett learned that the Gore campaign made calls to reassure entertainment executives that the campaign's focus would not change, he warned he would be watching. "Lieberman has been to my right," he told me. "You can't make him a white hat all of a sudden."
You also can't make Lieberman an attack dog. Gore may need one, because he's so annoying when he does it himself. But Lieberman is too civil for that. Any transformation would sound tinny; Lieberman can't mimic the man at the top of the ticket. In fact, it should work the other way around: Al Gore has to move closer to Joe Lieberman than Joe Lieberman has to move to Al Gore. If Lieberman starts wearing earth tones and dressing like a Banana Republic ad, start worrying.
Perhaps Clinton began his exit last week when he told an audience that while Gore shares the credit for the nation's prosperity, he should not be blamed for his boss's personal mistakes.
Why not have Lieberman make the same point? At least we would believe him.
Gloria Borger is also a CBS News special correspondent.