WASHINGTON — For the first time since the 1920 election — when Harding and Coolidge faced Cox and FDR — we have a competition between two "kangaroo tickets."
A kangaroo is a mammal whose hindquarters are much stronger than its forelegs. In political slang, a kangaroo ticket is one in which the vice-presidential running mate is better equipped to become president than the presidential nominee.
George W. Bush, with no great grasp of world affairs, chose Dick Cheney to add experience. Al Gore, tainted by fund-raising scandals and association with a known president, chose Joe Lieberman in the hope that his ethical stature and famous denunciation of Clinton immorality would provide a quick rectitude fix.
But Gore's selection adds the element of discombobulation: by placing the first Jew on a major national ticket, he confuses all polling and transforms what only yesterday seemed to smug Republicans like a sure thing for Bush into a close contest.
Not content to let the historic shattering of an outdated taboo speak for itself, Gore likened his choice of a Jew in 2000 to the Democrats' choice of a Catholic named Kennedy in 1960. Lieberman hailed it as a kind of miracle, evidence of "the courage and character and fairness of Al Gore." Their not-so-subtle idea is to make a vote for the Democratic ticket not only a vote for experience and rectitude but a vote for tolerance.
Turnabout is fair play; if rich, white male Republicans can celebrate blacks, women and gays on stage in Philadelphia, then scandal-ridden, diverse Democrats can celebrate their moralist in Los Angeles.
Will the choice of Lieberman — not only Jewish but an observant exemplar of modern Orthodox Judaism — give Gore's rating a permanent lift?
He may make unsuspected inroads among fundamentalist Christians because of an affinity among orthodoxies. He'll generate a greater turnout among Jews, who vote 80 percent Democratic
What about Republican Jews? If you vote for a Jew only because he's a Jew, you legitimize others who vote against Jews only for that reason. Down that ethnic road, in a population 98 percent non-Jewish, is no election of Jews to anything.
And yet, as JFK showed Catholics in appearing before Houston's ministers, a first-time appeal has its ethnic tug. There is no denying the good feeling that accompanies the realization that, even at the top level of American politics, Jewishness is no longer considered a negative.
"It changes things," says Jacob Neusner, professor of religion at Bard College and the most profound Talmudist I know. "We are used to coping with dislike for the unlike that is directed against us. But how are we going to get accustomed to regarding being Jewish as a plus?"
Gore's choice of the studious and inspiring Lieberman, like Bush's choice of the serious and solid Cheney, reflects well on both presidential candidates. And kangaroo tickets can surprise; both strong hindquarters of 1920 went all the way.
New York Times News Service