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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2002 / 29 Shevat, 5762

George Will

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Consumer Reports

Lieberman's Present-Tense Non-Candidacy -- AMONG Sen. Joseph Lieberman's golden memories from the 2000 campaign is of a 6 a.m. ("typical compulsive Gore scheduling," he says) visit, with Al Gore, to a fire station in Hollywood, Fla. Lieberman asked the firefighters what they generally talked about at breakfast. He expected them to say sports. They said the stock market.

"Modern capitalism," says Lieberman, contemplating Enron's interesting variety of it, "has no conscience." Which is, Lieberman understands, a strength of capitalism: It is marvelously efficient at allocating resources because it is single-minded about efficiency measured in profit.

For that reason, he says, today's mass-participation capitalism, which depends on fast-moving capital markets, depends on confidence in information about corporations. Hence, says Lieberman, it depends on government regulations that enforce transparency and honesty. Consider: If there were no municipal inspections of restaurant hygiene, would you be more hesitant about dining out?

Since the coming of newsreel and then television cameras to congressional hearing rooms, investigations have propelled people into presidential politics, even onto national tickets. Recall Sen. Harry Truman's chairmanship of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program during World War II, Rep. Richard Nixon's confrontation with Alger Hiss concerning subversive activities, Sen. Estes Kefauver's chairmanship of the committee investigating organized crime, Sen. John Kennedy's participation in investigations of labor union corruption (Robert Kennedy was committee counsel), Sen. Henry Jackson's chairmanship of a Government Affairs subcommittee's investigation of domestic oil companies in 1974, and more.

Now Lieberman, who at age 9 hurried home from school to see the televised Kefauver hearings, chairs Government Affairs, which can make as much of the Enron mess as he wants it to. A seasoned business executive has told Lieberman that 80 percent of American corporations have some component with Enron-type accounting problems -- concealing liabilities, inflating profits. Cut that estimate in half, then in half again, and it would still be alarming enough to cause investors to retreat from the market. Lieberman's guess that "Enron will be for business what Watergate was for politics" is discouraging, given that Watergate produced the campaign finance laws that professional improvers now say are so in need of improving.

Lieberman received rave reviews (and perhaps a vice presidential nomination) for a Senate speech telling President Clinton he should be ashamed of himself. Lieberman frequently displays the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger demeanor of a professional scold; he was a scourge of the entertainment industry's mechanizing of vulgarity, until he became Gore's running mate. He believes, rightly, that shaming -- inflicting embarrassment -- as well as new laws can be a legitimate aim of congressional hearings regarding matters like Enron.

Indeed, to the (large) extent that Enron's collapse resulted from obvious corruption, it is well to remember that bank robberies are not a reason for redundant new laws against robbing banks. Lieberman, who has received lots of contributions from the accounting industry, makes the obligatory post-Enron genuflection before the altar of campaign finance reform. But as Sen. Mitch McConnell says, soft money was no more the cause of Enron's collapse than Martha Stewart was of Kmart's.

Lieberman has vowed that he will not seek the Democratic presidential nomination if Gore does. Recently Gore -- just a razor, a jacket and a necktie away from the presidential look -- dipped a toe back into politics with a Tennessee speech. Two days before, Lieberman, at ease in his Senate office, reiterated his vow, sort of: "That remains my position." However, the present-tense verb describes the present without proscribing future revision. And Lieberman, although grateful for Gore's selection of him as running mate, understands that Gore acted from calculation, not altruism.

Gore's calculation surely factored in Lieberman's appeal to Florida's Jewish voters, and it came agonizingly close to paying off. And Lieberman, whose stance regarding running remains deferential to his benefactor, is not rigorously reticent about his potential strength as a presidential candidate.

He thinks he is stronger than most Democratic aspirants in the South, for two reasons. He is a moderate -- some Democrats probably consider him an extremist because he has supported a capital gains tax cut for small businesses and school choice for District of Columbia students in failing schools. And he is so religiously observant.

He would be better situated than many Democratic presidential aspirants should President Bush attack Iraq. He was one of just 10 (out of 56) Democratic senators who voted to authorize the use of force in the Persian Gulf War, and no national Democrat is more ardent for removal of Iraq's regime.

A nation focused on Enron at home and the "axis of evil" abroad might fancy a scold who is a hawk.

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