What are the Democrats scared of?

By Stuart Buck
web posted August 14, 2000

The Democrats are scared. As you just may have heard, Senator Joseph Lieberman is Jewish. The Democrats have proclaimed that fact incessantly ever since Gore's choice for vice-president was announced. Yet Democrats are scared -- about Lieberman's Jewishness. Specifically, they are afraid that they will lose votes by having a Jew on the ticket.

The evidence? Look no further than the recent flurry of accusations by Democratic leaders. Ed Rendell, head of the Democratic National Committee, appeared on The Edge, a Fox News Channel show, on Tuesday night. Describing the choice of Lieberman, he said, "I don't really think it will have any impact because anyone who'd vote against the Democratic ticket for the sole reason that Joe Lieberman was Jewish, they weren't voting for us anyway. They're going to vote for the religious right candidates, George Bush or Pat Buchanan. They have no intention of voting for Democrats."

Joe Lieberman and Al GoreRendell's comments were echoed on the same show by Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. Lichtman said, "There will be an anti-Jewish vote that you won't detect in the polls, but Al Gore is betting that the kind of folks who might vote against a Jewish vice president might not have voted for the Democratic ticket anyway, and on balance he's going to bring on board more people."

Now, the charge that the religious right will vote against Lieberman because of his Judaism is absurd. Lieberman, despite his hardline pro-choice stance, has made more efforts than any other Democratic politician to find common ground with religious conservatives, and they have equally tried to find common ground with him. He is the honorary chairman of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, sharing a board membership with such right-wing stalwarts as Gary Bauer and Ralph Reed. He has worked with Bill Bennett to call the entertainment industry to account for its immorality. He even appeared on Pat Robertson's television show The 700 Club in February, and said that we are at "the beginning of another spiritual awakening in America" and that he was pleased to talk to Robertson who was "at the heart of it."

Those are strong words, and words that warm the hearts of religious conservatives. (Name another nationally known Democrat who has anything nice to say about Pat Robertson!) Small wonder that even Abe Foxman, head of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, said in a NPR interview on Monday that "the Christian right, the religious right of this country, will welcome a Joe Lieberman, because he shares with them faith, values, religiosity, a belief in the Almighty." I know from personal experience that conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews often find much to admire in each other's moral values and devotion to God. When I first started at Harvard Law School, my wife and I discovered that our upstairs neighbors were Orthodox Jews from Israel. After we became friends, they told us that their anticipation on coming to America had turned out to be true -- that their best American friends would likely be conservative Christians from the Bible belt.

Louis Farrakhan

So why are the Democrats raising the ludicrous charge that only conservative Christians would ever vote against Lieberman because of his Judaism? Because they are terrified of how a Jewish vice-president will play with another key Democratic constituency -- blacks. And with good reason. Although many blacks are strongly opposed to anti-Semitism, several prominent black leaders such as Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton (whose blessing has been obsequiously sought by Gore and Hillary) have made their anti-Semitic views well-known. Just last Wednesday, the head of the Dallas NAACP was forced to resign after saying that he was "concerned about . . . any kind of Jewish candidate . . . I think we need to be very suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level because we know that their interest primarily has to do with . . .money and these kinds of things." As columnist Armstrong Williams points out, "The selection of Lieberman could stir up a backlash among black American voters, who long ago signed an oath of loyalty to the Democratic Party but have yet to be rewarded with a black American candidate."

So Democratic leaders have settled on a crafty strategy. Make a preemptive insinuation of anti-Jewish bigotry among religious Republicans, and maybe people will ignore the prominent anti-Semites among the Democratic ranks.

Perhaps they took their lead from pundits' allegations about the Republican convention. Michelle Cottle, writing in The New Republic, said that Republicans were using the "ricochet pander" -- pandering to moderate and independent whites by pretending to care about minorities. Cokie Roberts (and husband Steve) wrote in a similar vein that the Republican emphasis on minorities is intended not to win minority votes, but to "make the GOP look less scary to female voters." In other words, what Republicans do with minorities is not about the minorities themselves, but rather about appealing to the sensibilities of moderate and independent whites.

Here we have the same ploy in reverse. You might call it the ricochet insult. Democrats are trying to sway moderate and independent whites by sneering at the (unidentified) anti-Semitism in the Republican party. "Vote for Bush," they say, "and you vote with the people who are prejudiced against The First Jewish Vice-Presidential Candidate Ever Offered By a Major Party." Thus, Democrats hope to deflect people's anti-Semitism detectors from where it belongs -- the Democratic ranks. It's a ploy that just might work, if people don't pay attention.

Stuart Buck is a recent honors graduate at Harvard Law School whose op-eds have appeared in Intellectual Capital, the Harvard Crimson, and the Harvard Law Record.

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