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Jewish World Review August 25, 2000 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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Ben as Hamlet: Answering JWR's readers -- THERE ARE so many polls, I can do nothing but add my own. The current surveys, just after the Democratic Convention, show the Bush-Gore race at about a dead heat. My guess is the margin will return to a 5-plus-percent Bush lead.

On Aug. 7, I heard that Sen. Joseph Lieberman would be Al Gore's choice for running mate. I quickly filed a column, noting that I had intended to vote for George W. Bush, but now I was switching to "undecided." I offered two reasons: First, Lieberman is Jewish and I am too; you get one free ethnic vote for a "first," just as many Catholics voted for John Kennedy. Second, I approve of Lieberman's basic political grounding. He is a tough-minded moderate Democrat, who serves as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. I hoped that Lieberman's appointment signaled that the Gore Democrats would move from stale left to vital center.

I received a flood of mail. About half of it came from newspaper readers. The other half came from a burgeoning Web site,, which carries mostly conservative columnists. My sample is broad, tilted to the conservative side, and over-represented by orthodox Jews.

About 95 percent of the mail was negative, and from a clear perspective:

Joe will be forced to sell-out. Ben is a sell-out. Joe and Ben will be corrupted by the still-liberal Democrats, and by Gore, who believes in nothing. And -- aha! -- there's already proof: Overnight, Joe changed his views about school vouchers, Social Security and affirmative action.

The issues raised are serious. Many of the statements about Lieberman's positions seem to have been advanced by Gore spinners who didn't understand Lieberman's nuanced views.

Lieberman has always had a statistically liberal record. He's environmentally green; he's even made some headway with me on the modern enviro case ("God only gave us one planet; take care of it.") He's been mostly pro-labor union. Alas, he's a liberal.

But, as the late Sen. Scoop Jackson used to say, "I'm a liberal but not a damn fool." As I see it, so too with Lieberman. Some things are hard to measure, or don't get measured.

For example, he's doesn't do the faux populism that Gore in his new, seventh persona is now displaying. A recent article in the New York Times notes Lieberman's pro-business record. He has been strongly pro-free trade, strong on defense and for an assertive foreign policy -- including the early use of force when necessary. He's been tough about the vulgarity of popular culture.

I talked with Lieberman's communications director, Dan Gerstein, about the three issues in contention. He says:

-- Lieberman still favors the experimental use of school vouchers, will make that case privately to a President Gore, but when an administration decision is made, he will support it.

-- On the partial privatization of Social Security, Lieberman had been intrigued by the idea but refused to co-sponsor legislation because he feared the numbers don't work out. (I think he's wrong; partial privatization means more income for the poor, who will be unable to pay the "matching" money required in the Gore plan.)

-- On affirmative action, he says he's been for it past, present and future. Me too. You too, I bet. But affirmative action -- in my lexicon, and I think in Lieberman's -- doesn't include preferences or quotas; it's "outreach." Lieberman says he supports the Clinton-Gore "mend it, don't end it" policy. (Me too. You too, I bet. Alas, the real Clinton-Gore position has been "Don't end it; fake mending it.")

That said, by my lights, the Democratic Convention was a floperoo. Having stiffed the left with the Lieberman choice, the bizarre bending over backward in atonement was stupid, undoing much of Clinton's work in building a centrist image for the party of the left. (Clinton is steaming about it.)

There was little DLC-type content or tone in either Gore's speech or Lieberman's. The spectacle of Al Gore saluting the medical breakthroughs of the future and, in the next breath, denouncing pharmaceutical companies was surreal. What sort of jerks does he think we are?

Meanwhile, with one very major exception, I thought George W. Bush's convention speech was excellent.

Here's my problem -- as iterated by Bush, straight out of the playbook of two men I admire, Casper Weinberger and Colin Powell: "When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming."

Sounds great. We should have invited Uncle Ho to duke it out on the White Sands Proving Grounds. But that is not the way the world works. And the first rule of geopolitics is never announce to potential adversaries what you're not going to do.

So, here I am, undecided. There's more, but the campaign has just begun.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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