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Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 2002 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Soul of the Democrats?

With Gore sliding to the left, Lieberman's voice is needed on Iraq | It is no great insight to say that satisfying key constituencies is what politicians do for a living. But though many political animals seem to often forget it, speaking up for principle is often at least as profitable as pandering. And therein hangs the tale of the most significant American Jewish politician of this or any previous generation: the sainted junior senator from Connecticut, Joseph I. Lieberman.

Lieberman's place in American and Jewish history is already secure. He earned his entry into the history books when he was chosen as the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000. As the first Jew to do so, Lieberman became an authentic American Jewish hero. That he achieved these heights not by seeking to escape his Jewish identity, but as a proud observant Jew, made his choice all the more important.

Ironically, due to the confusion of some Lieberman-worshipping Jewish grandmothers in Florida who weren't able to figure out how to vote for the Democrats on a confusing "butterfly" ballot, the senator was forced to settle for a return to Congress, while Dick Cheney got the chance to be the man hiding in an undisclosed location for much of the time since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.


Since the election, Lieberman has managed to fly slightly below the national political radar screen. This low profile has been helpful, as he has used the time to plot and plan something few would have thought possible two years ago: a Lieberman candidacy for the presidency, with a plausible chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

For those who say there is plenty of time to ponder whether "Holy Joe's" presidential dreams are more fantasy than realpolitik, think again. The primaries that will decide the 2004 Democratic nomination are less than 18 months away. Those planning to challenge for the right to face George W. Bush in the big presidential dance must be poised to run now. While Lieberman has sensibly avoided comment on a presidential run, his ambitions are no secret to anyone in Washington - or anywhere else for that matter.

Indeed, having done well as a vice-presidential candidate, it would be astonishing were he not to be thinking presidential thoughts. It was Al Gore's choice of Lieberman and the way the veep candidate conducted himself as a man of faith that revived the Democratic ticket. The down side was that tagging along behind Gore required Lieberman to kowtow to Democratic constituencies and to shed some of his centrist stands. As a result, this erstwhile scold of Hollywood immorality found himself backtracking to raise money from the entertainment industry, disavowing his support of vouchers to satisfy the teacher's unions and flip-flopping on affirmative action and Louis Farrakhan to pass muster with African-Americans.

Lieberman's nose dive into the greasy pit of political compromise was not a pretty sight, and it rightly cost him the admiration of many who valued him precisely because he was a man who didn't do such things.

His defenders argue that as the vice-presidential candidate, he was obligated to follow Gore's lead. Maybe so, but as he eases his way into his own push for the top job, it will be interesting to see how much distance this most centrist of "New Democrats" is willing to put between himself and the core of his party on the left. As much as he would like to play this game close to his vest for another year-and-a-half, the next few weeks may provide us with the best chance to evaluate just how much Lieberman's conscience has been altered by an acute case of presidential fever.


The issue at stake is nothing less than the most momentous decision Congress will make in the next two years: an up or down vote to give President Bush the okay to launch military action against Iraq.

Unfortunately, this crisis finds the Democratic Party splintered and virtually leaderless. Most Democrats in Congress seem to support the president on the merits, as they should, given the lethal nature of the threat from the Iraqi regime. Others are too scared to speak out against Bush.

But some key Democrats are way too close to the party's hard-core leftist base. While it was no surprise that Sen. Ted Kennedy would join those opposing action against Iraq, Gore's re-entry onto the national scene last week after two years of hibernation found him taking the anti-war side, as well as indulging in some of the most hypocritical rhetoric uttered in recent memory.

Gore - who supported regime change in Iraq two years ago and who voted for the first Persian Gulf war - now places himself among those refusing to contemplate U.S. action without the approval of a feckless U.N. majority. In questioning Bush's motives (as well as forgetting much of his own record on this issue), Gore effectively cut himself off from the center in a brazen attempt to win support in 2004 from the most extreme liberal wing of his party - let's call it the Barbra Streisand brigade - a group that is marginal in the general election but crucial in the primaries.

Yet Gore's disreputable stand gives Lieberman a perfect opening to launch his presidential run. By directly confronting his former benefactor on Iraq, Lieberman can spin breaking his promise not to run against Gore as a matter of principle. In a field crowded with candidates appealing to the left, such as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Lieberman can stake his claim to the center of the party.

Even more importantly, with the leading lights of the Democrats either running scared or just losing their cool (i.e., the Senate's lightweight majority leader Tom Daschle), the nation needs to hear the voice of a leading Democrat who is willing to place the national interest above that of narrow partisanship.

Lieberman has said that he opposes Gore on this issue, but he must do more than merely make a few noncommittal statements. He must take to the Senate floor and deliver an address on the threat from Iraq that will establish a tone of national unity and eclipse the bitter ravings of Gore.

It is worth remembering that Lieberman's August 1998 speech denouncing President Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal was probably the single act that not only gave him his stained-glass reputation but also earned him the vice-presidential nod. At that time, Lieberman said just enough to earn the "courageous" tag, but not enough to actually aid the Republican push for impeachment and cut himself off from his own party. Had he called for Clinton's resignation rather than merely scolding him, the outcome of "L'Affaire Lewinsky" might have been very different.

This time, Lieberman has another chance to make history, and should do so without hedging his bet as he did in 1998. By helping to establish a united home front in favor of action on Iraq, he can scuttle the leftist putsch to save Saddam while aiding his own presidential cause.

If he fails to do so, then we will know that it is the political sharpster - and not the "conscience of the Senate" - that is the defining characteristic of Joseph Lieberman's political career. That would be a shame for him, but even more so for his country.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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