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Joe Lieberman sticks his toe in (continued)

BY SETH GITELL

IF LIEBERMAN wins the Democratic nomination in 2004, it would sustain the power of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which Lieberman chaired from 1995 to 2001, and which helped to elect Clinton in 1992. Some observers believe Lieberman, who is deeply religious and cuts rightward on defense policy, would actually be a more natural DLC candidate than Clinton, who had a tortured relationship with the US military. "I think Senator Lieberman would be a strong candidate if he ran," says DLC founder and CEO Al From, who contends that the Democrats need to win a majority of independent voters and 60 percent of moderate voters to win a general election. "What Joe Lieberman demonstrates is the kind of independence that will have real appeal to rank-and-file voters across the country," From says. "Itís a myth that you have to go left in the primary and then move to the center in the general election. I think his orthodoxy and his deep belief in religion is a plus in the South and parts of the Midwest."

A Democratic activist who spent time with Lieberman on the 2000 campaign trail contends that the senatorís low-key personality and moral seriousness struck a chord with voters throughout the key swing states of the South and Midwest. The activist recalls Lieberman campaigning in a small Midwestern town, where the vice-presidential candidate and a few aides visited a coffee shop. Before his arrival, Lieberman learned that the town had recently experienced a major plant closing and that many of the residents were unemployed. He spoke to each person in the restaurant about his or her plight, then said good-bye personally to each one. Lieberman, the activist remembers, was a hit. "Most of them were independent voters. They were won over by the fact that he had studied the issues that mattered to them and listened to them about what was going on," the activist recalls, adding that Lieberman spoke to them about his father-in-law, who owned a small business in Massachusetts. "He won these very Christian folks over."

For his part, Lieberman says he senses his appeal to more-moderate voters. "Iíve been encouraged by a lot of different kinds of people in places like the South, perhaps because Iím identified as a moderate-values candidate, and among moderate Democrats around the country in all sorts of places," he notes.

Wonít the DLC-inspired emphasis on moderate and even conservative voters hurt Liebermanís presidential candidacy with the Democratic Party base? The DLCís From argues that only a candidate who can win the center can help the Democrats retake the White House. William Hillsman, a fellow at the Kennedy Schoolís Institute of Politics and chief creative officer of Northwoods Advertising, which has done political advertising for the campaigns of Senator Paul Wellstone, Governor Jesse Ventura, and Ralph Nader, says otherwise. A Lieberman presidential run "would be great for anybody interested in progressive politics," says Hillsman, referring to the DLC as "Republicans Lite." "Then the shell game doesnít work anymore. [Lieberman] doesnít have any appeal to blue-collar workers unless the blue-collar people are up in arms, and they feel [the war] needs to be done harder and more forcefully."

Here Hillsman hints at the ultimate significance of Liebermanís candidacy: can his party, which moved left on foreign policy in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, contain a politician with Liebermanís views? Robert Kaufman, a political-science professor at the University of Vermont and the author of Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics (University of Washington, 2000), contends that Liebermanís political fate transcends the politician himself. "One thing that will be interesting is the battle between Lieberman and McGovern forces in the Democratic Party," says Kaufman. "One of the interesting things will be to see if September 11 changes the configuration of the Democratic Party such that Senator Lieberman can revive the muscular-foreign-policy tradition of Henry Jackson. I hope Lieberman can revive this tradition, because itís important it live on in both parties." On the other hand, Borosage, the populist, downplays the foreign-policy aspect of a Lieberman run: "Heís going to run as a hawk, but I suspect that almost every Democratís going to run as a hawk."

Given the recent questioning of the War on Terror by such Democrats as Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and the nascent opposition among House Democrats to expanding the war, Borosageís assertion seems hard to believe. Massachusetts senator John Kerry will certainly allow his credentials as a Vietnam veteran and Silver Star recipient to come to the forefront in any debate over foreign and military policy; Kerry also has sketched out an energy policy that would enable the US to wean itself from Saudi oil. But it seems unlikely that, as a group, the Democrats will outflank Bush on the war.

Unless, of course, the Bush familyís long-standing ties to Saudi Arabiaís ruling family become an issue. If it emerges that Bushís history with the Saudis translates into fighting the War on Terror tepidly, then policies like Kerryís energy plan and Liebermanís overall robust approach to the conflict will become positives. The Saudi connection could make Bushís contacts with Enron look like childís play, giving a boost to Democrats who have no known comparable links to the Middle Eastern oil establishment. In such circumstances, Lieberman becomes a realistic candidate for the Democratic nomination. Thatís if Gore decides not to run. If Gore does run, itís easy to imagine a Democratic ticket that again includes the two Democrats who voted for the original Gulf War: Gore and Lieberman. That election could settle a whole lot more than the question of who really won Florida in 2000.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: March 28 - April 4, 2002
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