Jewish immigrants to America used to respond anxiously to any major public news event by asking: Is it good for the Jews? Al Gore's embrace of Joe Lieberman invites a new twist: Is it good for the Democrats?
I'm torn. On the one hand, Gore's choice signals boldness. And it could give America an elevated debate about religious tolerance of the sort we haven't seen since John Kennedy and maybe since Thomas Jefferson. On the other hand, it could inflame American tribalism. And the designation ofthe centrist Lieberman, quite apart from his religion, kisses off the Democratic party's liberal and trade union base. Now the liberal on the ticket, relatively, is Gore.
The more hopeful scenario goes something like this: Not only does Lieberman make it much harder for Republicans to rail against the amorality of ''Clinton-Gore.'' But who better than an orthodox Jew to trip up the fundamentalist right?
Moral Majority types think they have a monopoly on religious faith. Lieberman's presence makes it harder, unless one wants to sound crudely anti-Semitic, to insist that only Born Agains practice the true religion.
This puts a nice wedge between George W. Bush and his fundamentalist supporters. It suggests to socially liberal, church-going, suburban swing voters that the dogmatic religious right is more of a threat to a pluralist, tolerant America than an orthodox Jew.
For the most part, Jews don't proselytize. As members of what Justice Brandeis called a despised minority, Jews tend to be extremely conscious of the value of tolerance.
Tactically, the threat to a ticket that includes Lieberman is not the informed religious belief of Christian fundamentalism. Born Again Christians actually tend to like orthodox Jews, either out of theological beliefs having to do with the Second Coming or because both groups share a deep faith. The Reverend Jerry Falwell said the other day he had great respect for Lieberman even though they subscribed to different doctrines.
The more serious risk to the Democrats is in the admittedly dwindling fraction of Americans who just wouldn't vote for a Jew. These voters, however, are likely found in greater numbers in states that Gore is unlikely to carry anyway.
Even so, Lieberman's nomination is somewhat divisive to the Democratic base. Despite Jewish support for civil rights, some black voters are casually anti-Semitic, based perhaps on personal experiences with white landlords and retail merchants who may be disproportionately Jewish.
Black voters, along with other ethnic groups, may feel that it was their turn to have a barrier broken by one of their own. And even if Lieberman trumps the ace of the Christian Coalition, it's just plain risky in our secular democracy to invite a contest of religious one-upmanship.
It's hard to see how the relatively more tolerant and inclusive party (the Democrats) can ultimately win the game of who is the more pious.
All things considered, Lieberman's religion is probably at worst a wash for the Democrats. More troubling are his views on secular matters.
The Connecticut senator, after all, is president of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council. He is one of the most conservative Democrats outside the deep south, having embraced, at times, school vouchers and partial privatization of Social Security.
On tolerance issues, Lieberman (like Gore and Clinton) is pretty liberal. Had he not been a strong supporter of abortion rights, gay rights, and affirmative action, Gore would not have picked him. But on the economic issues of concern to many rank and file Democratic voters, especially trade unionists, Lieberman is about as centrist as you can get and still be a national Democrat.
So Gore has made a big gamble - that he needed more insurance on issues of morality and that he could take his voting base for granted on issues of economics. The labor movement, stiffed once again, will loyally work for the ticket. But how much enthusiasm will the rank and file muster?
Bush, interestingly, went the other way. He appointed in Dick Cheney a very conservative running mate who is congenial to his party base, and reached out to swing voters with mere symbolism and atmospherics. Gore, by contrast, picked a genuine centrist and delivered mainly atmosphericsto his liberal and labor supporters. We'll see who made the shrewder move.