Bleeding-Heart Republicans vs. God-Fearing Democrats — What Is This?

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Perhaps the Republicans and the Democrats thought they could get the attention of an increasingly indifferent electorate by playing a game of I'll-be-you-and-you-be-me. Last week the GOP sought to buy the world a Coke with a display of compassion and biodiversity so giddy that it might have been rejected as too over-the-top for a "Saturday Night Live" skit. And now, as the Democrats gather in Los Angeles, early signs are that their response will be as out of character.

While the GOP tested the elasticity of the electorate's imagination by recasting itself as champions of the best achievements of the New Deal and Great Society eras — the Republicans are now the party of education, saviors of Social Security and deep-pocketed patrons of Head Start — the Democrats, if the Lieberman announcement was anything to go by, are auditioning for the role of God-fearing party of family values.

President Clinton may cling to a separation of church and state that allows him to share his latest Monica mea culpa with an audience of forgiving preachers, only to free himself to dwell on his secular achievements when he addresses the party convention on Monday night. But that wouldn't be the first instance in which the President has found himself out of step with the Gore campaign.

Senator Lieberman mentioned God 16 times in his announcement speech, even invoking evangelical Christian tradition when he asked the party faithful to "allow me to let the spirit move me as it does" before citing the injunction in Chronicles to "give thanks to God, and declare His name and make His acts known to the people, to be glad of spirit, to sing to God, and make music to God, and most of all, to give glory in gratitude to God from whom all blessings truly do flow." And for good measure, he championed Al Gore as an unwavering father, husband and "servant of God Almighty." Needless to say, the same words spoken by a Republican candidate might have alarmed not only ACLU types, but also Governor Bush's handlers, who've taken great pains to distance the party's image from the influence of the Christian right. (Bush, for the record, limited himself to five references during his convention speech.)

But the Democrats' image-making is clearly relying on Lieberman's presence to invoke the sort of Old Testament avenging angel who'll rain down plagues at the first sign of moral turpitude. Conventional political wisdom may suggest that picking a religious Jew would have cost Gore among undecided voters in the Bible Belt, but that's not necessarily the case. These are End Times, after all, and Christian prophesies that accord a major role to the Jews in the apocalyptic buildup that they believe will precede the Second Coming of Christ have prompted an unprecedented enthusiasm for Israel and Jews among many conservative evangelical Christians. That's hardly going to carry the South for Gore, but projecting the morally conservative image hinted at in Lieberman's announcement may be designed for swing states.

Of course it's too early to predict the precise convention choreography that will be adopted by the Democratic image makers, but don't be surprised if there's more than a dose of Old Time religion. Made all the more incongruous, perhaps, by the fact that the whole shebang is going down in the precincts of Hollywood, which Lieberman has regularly joined the Christian right in denouncing as the most morally disreputable of Democratic strongholds.