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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2003 / 18 Shevat, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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You're on your own now, Joe

This time, Lieberman's run is about his own ambition, not American Jewish history | For the past three years, a lot of smart people around the country have been seeking an answer to one question: Who is Joe Lieberman?

That question took on an added urgency as the sainted junior U.S. senator from the state of Connecticut launched his bid for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 2004.

Unlike previous Jews who made runs for the White House (Pennsylvania's Milton Shapp in 1976 and current U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in 1996), Lieberman's candidacy is not an exercise in futility. He is a serious candidate with name recognition and the ability to raise the money needed to be competitive. He has every right to believe he has as good a chance as any other Democrat to earn the right to run against George W. Bush in 2004.

But even more than during his highly regarded stint as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, political observers, as well as many ordinary American Jews, are asking just what Lieberman's presidential campaign offers this country. Is he the "new Democrat" who once personified a constructive alliance between persons of faith on both sides of the political aisle or just another cynical pol who will say or do anything to win votes?


In assessing this potentially historic chapter, let's first dismiss once again the theory popular among some segments of American Jewry that Lieberman's candidacy will stoke the never entirely dormant fires of American anti-Semitism.

As Lieberman's showing in 2000 proved, such thoughts are arrant nonsense. Lieberman's presence on the ticket was the best thing that happened to the Democrats in 2000. Lieberman injected a much-needed dose of traditional American religious faith into the otherwise liberal/left image of the Democrats. His Shomer Shabbat campaign helped Democrats tap into the strong vein of philo-Semitism that runs deep in American Christianity. His open observance inspired respect and showed that pure Jew-hatred was limited to a marginal minority.

Nor is there much reason to think that his attempt to place himself on the top of the ticket rather than the bottom will elicit a different response. No, this time the issue isn't whether the American people are wise or good enough to accept a worthy Jewish candidate. They are. In 2004, the questions will be about Lieberman himself.

As someone who consciously seeks the center in American politics, Lieberman can be fairly accused of incessant waffling on issues. As one Jewish professional who knew Lieberman well in Connecticut told me, "If you want to know where the middle of the road is, don't look for the double yellow line, just find Joe Lieberman."

While his disinclination to break new ground on issues doesn't make him unique, it also is responsible for the fact that people have always tended to see what they wanted to see in Lieberman. That's especially true of the moderates and conservatives who played a role in promoting him as a vice p residential candidate. This was also the group that was most disillusioned by his tilt to the left to please core Democratic constituencies during the 2000 campaign. His flip-flops on school choice, affirmative action, Louis Farrakhan as well as the influence of Hollywood's sex and violence on American culture took the shine off his reputation as a man of principle.

Anyone who watched him rise in Connecticut politics know that he is above all a hardheaded politician who enjoys the nuts-and-bolts aspect of his trade and is darned good at steamrolling opponents and sometimes even his allies. Those seeking more insight into the seemingly inscrutable puzzle that is Lieberman should not read the cloying, self-congratulatory and generally insufferable book written by the senator and his wife - "An Amazing Adventure: Joe and Hadassah's Personal Notes on the 2000 Campaign" - that has just been published.


If there is any Rosetta stone that can better decode his political soul, it might be his senior thesis at Yale which examined the career of a long-forgotten hack named John Bailey that was itself subsequently published in book form. Little remembered today, Bailey was the political boss of Connecticut politics in the late '50s and early '60s who parlayed his support of John F. Kennedy into a stint as chairman of the national Democratic Party under JFK. And it is through this traditional Democratic Party model that we should look to analyze him.

Even more specifically for a Jewish community from whose deep political pockets Lieberman hopes to finance his 2004 run, there is another more disturbing analogy from that era of Connecticut politics.

Bailey's political protégé was the late U.S. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who also served as Connecticut's first Jewish governor and a member of Kennedy's cabinet. While Ribicoff is best remembered in American politics as the man who called Chicago Mayor Richard Dailey a Nazi from the podium of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, many also recall Ribicoff's willingness to distance himself at times from Israel.

At a time when friends of Israel were mobilizing Congress to oppose the transfer of advanced U.S. technology to Arab countries at war with Israel, Ribicoff supported the sale of high-tech jets and other military goodies to Saudi Arabia. He also went out of his way to undermine support for Israeli governments whose policies he didn't like such as those led by Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. In contrast to most non-Jewish politicians of his era and ours, Ribicoff took care never to be seen as "too supportive" of Israel.

Lieberman's recent trip to the Middle East during which he reached out to the Palestinians and lauded the fraudulent "peace" plan floated by Saudi Arabia (which called for unconditional Israeli surrender of all of the territories and the handing over of much of Jerusalem, including the Old City to the tender mercies of Yasser Arafat) was telling.

It should have alerted observers to the possibility that rather than Lieberman facing heat during the campaign for being too pro-Israel, he might think there was more political hay to be made by being called not pro-Israel enough. It appears that this will be his strategy.

Lieberman's attempt to stake out what remains of the center-right of the Democratic Party may or may not lead to victory in 2004. The guess here is that he will be competitive but ultimately lose (don't ask me yet who will be the winner).

Who is Joe Lieberman? Among other things, he is still a wonderful role model. His career illustrates that it is possible to live a faithful Jewish religious life while rising to the heights of the non-Jewish world.

But with other Democrats more likely to take stronger stands on Israel than him and with an incumbent Republican president who has, to date, done everything to earn the votes of pro-Israel voters, Lieberman has no special call on Jewish support.

Lieberman's free ride from the Jewish community needs to end now. As he has acknowledged himself, he is a Jew running for president, not the Jewish candidate.

The message from the Jewish community should come forth loud and clear: You're on your own now, Joe.

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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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