Lieberman,the issues guy

The Democrats here are on message. And the message is: "It's the issues, stupid."

Democrats lead when the focus is the issues, they say, and if they can just bring the topic around to issues, they will win.

There is some truth here.

After all, Al Gore has peace and prosperity in his corner and that's a pretty big one-two punch based on "the issues."

But as anyone who has ever interviewed for a job knows, image has its place. It doesn't matter how good your rsum is, if you walk into the office wearing jeans and an "I'm with stupid" T-shirt, you have just taken a healthy bite out of chances for employment.

All of which brings us to Joe Lieberman.

Overall, the media has smiled on Mr. Lieberman's selection as veep.

The initial story was a positive "Democrats nominate a Jew for veep." Over the weekend, things got a bit more serious and the story became, "Lieberman and Gore don't agree on some key ideas" - affirmative action and school vouchers to name a few things.

In the coming days and weeks we'll hear about: "Lieberman, the Hollywood basher" and "Lieberman and the rise of the religious left."

These are all interesting topics. But the truth is that the real Lieberman story, the one that matters, has little or nothing to do with any of these.

In the end, the selection of Lieberman is all about (gasp!) image and the "C" word - character. And in this way, Gore's selection of the Connecticut senator is a mirror of George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney - a complete reverse.

Mr. Bush's selection of Mr. Cheney was ultimately a defensive pick.

Cheney brings no new states into Bush's side of the ledger. He is not an exciting fresh new face. Cheney is an issue man, a reliable old hand that is meant to silence the main question about Bush. Is he up to the job?

For all the talk of Gore making a gutsy choice - warning, in the next few months you will grow very tired of the word "chutzpah" - Lieberman is also ultimately a defensive pick.

Like Cheney, Lieberman also brings no new geographic territory to the Gore camp. And while he is a likeable guy, Lieberman isn't exactly going to be Rocking the Vote on MTV - we probably will never know if he wears boxers or briefs. Lieberman, however, helps Gore's image and silences Bush's charges on Clinton and character.

This is not to belittle Gore's taking a chance in selecting an Orthodox Jew for a running mate or Lieberman's qualifications. But looking at what Gore's needs were in a veep, Lieberman was less risky than say Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina or Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant governor.

None of this is to say Lieberman was a bad choice. He allows Gore to get away from talk about character and to focus on - you guessed it - "the issues."

There is, however, one problem with Lieberman.

When he steps up to the mike tonight he will be talking to a crowd decidedly more liberal than he is, according to a New York Times poll of the delegates here. And since the Democrats want an issue-laden convention it's hard to know how the assembled will react to Lieberman's ideas.

The best bet?

Tonight Joe Lieberman won't talk about "the issues" at all - or he will talk about them so vaguely it will feel like we're back in Philly.

He probably won't play attack dog either.

He may talk about his life. He may talk about his friendship with Al Gore. He may talk about the weather. Because as long as he isn't too controversial, it doesn't really matter what words come out of Lieberman's mouth - the subtext is character.

Which just goes to show you that image may not be everything, but even an issue guy needs to look nice for his job interview.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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