Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2001 / 19 Shevat 5761
Is Joe Lieberman tilting left toward 2004?
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN, D-Conn., swears he hasn't caught the presidential bug and didn't lose his centrist soul serving as Vice President Al Gore's running mate last year.
So why did Lieberman vote against both of President Bush's controversial Cabinet nominees, John Ashcroft for attorney general and Gale Norton for Interior secretary?
On the basis of Lieberman's independent record and his past dedication to bipartisanship, one might have expected him to support one or both of Bush's nominees -- at least on the grounds that presidents deserve to have the Cabinet officers of their choice.
This year the award for senatorial independence goes to Russ Feingold, D-Wis., whose liberal supporters must be livid at his votes in favor of both nominees.
Another prize goes to Lieberman's Connecticut colleague, Sen. Chris Dodd -- the only Democratic senator mentioned as a potential 2004 presidential candidate -- who supported both nominees, despite intense pressure from groups representing the party base.
One Dodd friend told me that, as a result of what he regards as the unfair censure of his father, former Sen. Tom Dodd, D-Conn., he is "conscious of giving everyone a fair shake and will let the consequences be what they are."
Dodd even voted for the only presidential nominee to be denied confirmation since 1959, former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, who was rejected on account of alleged alcohol abuse.
Besides Dodd, the only Democratic potential presidential contender to break ranks on either nomination this year was Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, S.D., who voted for Norton, saying he intended to "monitor closely" her performance on environmental issues. Daschle, however, voted against Ashcroft.
Five other Senate Democrats voted in favor of both nominations: Zell Miller, Ga., who's also co-sponsoring Bush's tax plan; Kent Conrad, N.D., whose home state Bush carried handily; conservative Ben Nelson, Neb.; and Senate institutionalist Robert Byrd, W.Va.; and John Breaux, La., a long leader (with Lieberman) of Centrist Democrats.
Except for Dodd and Daschle, all the other Democratic 2004 "mentionees" voted in lockstep against both nominees: Sens. Joseph Biden, Del.; Evan Bayh, Ind.; John Kerry, Mass.; John Edwards, N.C.; Hillary Rodham Clinton, N.Y.; and Lieberman.
This can't be an accident, but the result of massive reluctance to alienate the liberal Democratic base --African-Americans, feminists, labor, environmentalists, the gay rights movement and secularists.
In an interview, though, Lieberman said he hasn't decided whether to run in 2004 and defended his votes on other grounds.
"If Al Gore decides to run in 2004, I don't see how I could run against him," Lieberman said. "We're friends, and last year he gave me the chance of a political lifetime, without which nobody would even be thinking about this possibility. So, as a matter of honor, I wouldn't do it."
Lieberman said neither he nor Gore has decided what he will do. Lieberman obviously enjoyed the experience of running a national campaign, but said, "I haven't turned the corner in my own mind at all, and I have a couple of years before I have to."
Lieberman asserted that his votes on Bush's nominees were not linked to any 2004 ambitions. A longstanding environmentalist, he said in his floor statement that Norton's record "reflects a philosophy that is contrary to the mission of the Department of Interior."
His vote against Ashcroft was influenced, he said, by numerous conversations he's had with ordinary African-American citizens, who expressed doubts about whether Ashcroft would protect their rights.
Lieberman said he felt he had developed a "new bond" with black voters during the 2000 campaign. He described his vote on Ashcroft as "more retrospective than prospective" -- based on his 2000 experience, not hope for support in 2004.
Lieberman is hardly the only moderate Democrat to oppose Ashcroft. Officially, the Democratic Leadership Council did so, declaring him a "divider, not a uniter."
Still, when combined with positions Lieberman took during the 2000 campaign, he seems to be tilting leftward -- though not on education reform, religious expression by political candidates and faith-based initiatives, about which he agrees with Bush.
Lieberman stoutly denied to me that he shifted ground when he became Gore's running mate, claiming he'd turned against Social Security privatization earlier, was satisfied with a "mend it, don't end it" approach to affirmative action and still supports small school voucher experiments.
On cultural issues, he said he should have been tougher on Hollywood than he seemed in the campaign and plans to introduce legislation soon that would empower the Federal Trade Commission to act against entertainment producers who market adult material to children.
On the other hand, Lieberman is toeing the Democratic Party line in opposing Bush's tax cuts, and it remains to be seen whether he'll support Bush on Medicare reform.
The bottom line is that the Democratic Party needs an independent, centrist leader. That used to be Joe Lieberman. I hope he's
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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