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Jewish World Review August 4, 2003 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5763

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From a different world, legislators have a hard time adjusting when running for president | Legislators often stumble when they run for president. They come from a different world, and they have a hard time adjusting.

A presidential candidate is far better off putting things simply and starkly, even at the risk of oversimplifying, than to constantly try to explain the shades of gray that exist around any issue.

Legislators live in a grayish world, however, and they try to avoid absolutes. (If you take an absolute position, you might alienate someone whose vote you might someday need.)

Legislators live in a world of compromise and log-rolling, a world of "on the one hand" and "yet, on the other."

This can be fatal in a presidential campaign, however -- especially a primary campaign in which the field is crowded.

In a crowded field, a candidate has to leave voters with a clear impression. Otherwise, voters simply won't remember which one he is.

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Howard Dean, a former governor, is a good example. If you have to sum him up in just a couple of words (which is the way most voters end up thinking about candidates), he is the "antiwar guy." Sure, he is about other things and sure other Democrats in the race oppose the war, but Dean, by speaking out clearly and simply, has staked out his territory. He can expand from there -- he must expand from there -- but at least people know where he stands on an important issue.

Joe Lieberman is having a tougher time. He is probably the most hawkish candidate in the Democratic race, and you'd think he'd want to stake out that territory. But Lieberman, a longtime legislator, lives in a world of nuance, which makes him want to qualify the things he says.

And so it is a lot tougher for him to make a clear impression.

Take Lieberman's position on George Bush: Sometimes he likes George Bush. He likes the George Bush who launched the Iraq war, and he even likes some of the things Bush has been doing during the occupation of Iraq.

"The end was just, and the means were fitting to the test," Lieberman said of the Iraq war in a speech this week, "as was the killing of Saddam Hussein's two sons and the encouraging search going on now in Iraq for Saddam Hussein himself."

On the other hand, there are things Lieberman doesn't like about Bush and the occupation. He thinks by including those 16 false words in his State of the Union speech about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium, Bush exaggerated the justification for the war.

On the third hand, however, Bush was still justified in pursuing that war.

On the fourth hand, though, Bush should have been much more prepared to find the weapons of mass destruction, and he should have built more international support, according to Lieberman.

"By its actions, the Bush administration threatens to give a bad name to a just war," Lieberman said.

If you want to put some of these hands together in one sentence, there is this statement, which exemplifies the difficulty Lieberman has in putting things in clear, unqualified terms:

"There's a danger that in expressing the justified questions about the 16 words in the State of the Union, and the stunning lack of preparedness of the Bush administration for post-Saddam Iraq, that we obscure the fact that this was a just war."

Got that? Or do you have to go over it two or three times to find out just which hand Lieberman is using at the moment?

"I think the mixed message is too confusing," Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said of Lieberman's speech.

And if Bill Kristol is confused, what are ordinary voters to make of it?

When Lieberman attacked his fellow Democrats in his speech, he was more clear -- up to a point.

"By their words, some in my party threaten to send a message that they don't know a just war when they see it," Lieberman said, "and more broadly, are not prepared to use our military strength to protect our security and the cause of freedom."

But which Democrat is not prepared to use our military strength to protect our security or the "cause of freedom?" And what does "cause of freedom" actually mean? There are many countries where people are denied freedom. Does Lieberman advocate using America's "military strength" to overthrow the regimes in each of those countries?

Most thought Lieberman was chiefly attacking Howard Dean. Except that Dean has said he would use the American military to invade another country under any of three conditions: If America is attacked (on that basis, Dean supported the invasion of Afghanistan), if the hostile country is an "immediate threat" to the United States, or to stop genocide (Dean supported President Clinton's use of troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, and he supports the use of American troops in Liberia.)

Lieberman and Dean do disagree on whether the Iraq war was a just war. "Every day," Dean said in response to Lieberman's speech, "it becomes clearer this was the wrong war at the wrong time." (A clear, stark statement. You can accept it or reject it. But at least you can understand it.)

Joe Lieberman is betting the Democratic Party is not as antiwar as some think and is confident that people can be won over to his positions.

And he may be right. If people can just figure out what his positions are.

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