Democrats gather in Los Angeles facing large questions not just about their success in November but also about the direction of their party. George W. Bush came out of the stage show in Philadelphia with a united and hungry GOP, an unimpeachably conservative running mate and a double-digit lead in the polls. In contrast, Gore has spent the summer months pandering on the Elián case, taking the corporate side in the China trade deal and “reinventing” his lagging campaign. Now, with his decision to choose Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, Gore has given Democrats new reasons to wonder where he intends to lead them, and whether they want to follow.
Gore’s choice of Lieberman is, on one level, admirable. By picking a Jew, and a practicing Orthodox one at that, Gore has advanced history in a symbolically and culturally important way. At the same time, however, choosing Lieberman puts paid to any notion that Gore will emerge from Clinton’s shadow as less corporate-friendly, and more genuinely committed to the needs of workers, the elderly and the poor, than the master of triangulation for whom he has worked these past eight years.
The naming of Lieberman, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, the money wing of the party, insults much of the activist and liberal base of the party. Indeed, how will all those teacher and union delegates, constituting a quarter or so of the total in Los Angeles, feel about being urged to leap to their feet to applaud a man who is on record supporting vouchers and uninhibited free trade? Worse, Lieberman’s selection blurs the issues contrast between Gore and Bush. (Although Lieberman’s unpublished article on Social Security, “My Private Journey Away From Privatization,” written in late June at the request of the Gore campaign, isn’t likely to cause the GOP to decide against reminding voters that Lieberman used to be an enthusiastic supporter of the concept, it’s a good sign. It shows that when New Democrats get into a campaign mode, they move left on progressive issues and away from their fundraising positions.)
To win, Gore has to draw a fundamental contrast between himself and Bush on the issues. He must show how he would build on the current prosperity to empower working people to gain a fair share of the profits and growth they are producing. He also needs to expose the Bush privatization plans that mask cuts in Social Security, Medicare and education with his own agenda for saving Social Security, bolstering Medicare and increasing investment in schools. To do that, he’ll have to have his vice-presidential nominee don different policy colors and pledge not to take them off.
The Bush strategy is clear–mobilize the base, blur policy differences with the New Dems and promise to return honor to the White House. Gore has helped him to do all three by nominating Joe Lieberman. That raises the stakes for him in Los Angeles. The convention could be one of his last opportunities to tell the party clearly where he wants to take the country and how he differs from George W. Many progressives, enticed by the Nader campaign, view the choice of Joe Lieberman as just another step in the hijacking of the Democratic Party by corporate interests. When he steps up to the podium in the Staples Center, Al Gore is going to have to make it clear why he believes that is not true and why the contrasts between the two tickets make a real and vital difference.