We rejoice in the goodness of the American people whose capacity to overcome centuries of antiSemitism made it possible for Al Gore to select U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman as a running mate without feeling that he was sacrificing his electoral chances.
I congratulate Al Gore for having the courage to make this selection, and pray that we will live to see the day when this same generosity is extended to African Americans and gays and lesbians.
Yet, as you may already know if you saw me on the Lehrer News Hour, CNN, CBS, and other news shows, I must temper this enthusiasm for a Jewish vice president with the recognition that Joseph Lieberman was the most politically conservative of the candidates Al Gore considered for the vice presidency. When Bush supporters claim that Lieberman's voting record shows a man closer to Bush than to Gore and lament the political capital Gore may thereby accumulate with conservative voters, you know that the rest of the country has something to worry about.
Through the legislation he has offered, Lieberman has accelerated the process by which the two major parties are merging into one pro-business, elitist, and morally tonedeaf governing force. In fact, Joseph Lieberman joined with Bill Clinton and Al Gore to create the Democratic Leadership Council precisely to transform the Democratic Party from its previous New Deal roots as the champion of working people, minorities, and the poor to a party that would cater to the needs of Wall Street and to the upper middle class. And they've done a great job. With Democrats on board, the gap between rich and poor has accelerated in the Clinton/Gore years, environmental protections have eroded when they conflicted with corporate interests, and defense spending (despite the end of the Cold War) has been treated as sacrosanct-instead, savings have been found by eliminating or reducing funding for the poor.
It's regrettable that the first time a Jew is selected for high office, that Jew is a person who has been the major Democratic Party advocate for the Star Wars defense system, the one Democrat who is associated with the values agenda of Bill Bennett, and one of the very few Senate Democrats who opposed raising the minimum wage and putting into place other protections for working people.
Given this kind of record, I have been particularly resistant to two claims made by the media about Lieberman:
1. He is the embodiment of the kind of moral leadership we need in America after the tawdry years of Bill Clinton. Though I salute Lieberman's critique of Clinton's sleazy sexual affair, I don't think that this earns him the title of moral leader. When I debated the Rev. Jerry Falwell on CNN on this issue in August, I pointed out that it has been the success of the religious right, coupled with the complicity of the media, to reduce our conception of morality to sexual behavior. Yet the Bible and the Jewish tradition have a much clearer definition of morality, one that focuses on the following question: how much has your society pursued justice and peace, alleviated the suffering of the homeless and the hungry, and relieved the oppression of the powerless? It is these questions which should be central in judging the morality of those who hold public office, and it is hard to see Joseph Lieberman's past record as a leader on these issues.
2. He is a non-assimilated Jew. I'm delighted that Lieberman is a practicing Orthodox Jew, and I believe that his practice of Shabbat will have a very positive influence on many Jews who have abandoned this incredibly powerful and inspiring spiritual practice. But in my book, Jewish Renewal, I describe in great detail the ways that one can be the most observant Orthodox Jew and nevertheless be, in effect, a Hellenist in drag-by buying into the worship of money and power that is the bottom line of American society, and by believing that one must be "realistic" by …