Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2000 / 28 Tishrei, 5761
Gaffes on Farrakhan and Israel raise questions about the candidate
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WITH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION less than two weeks away, side issues, such as the qualifications of the vice-presidential candidates, are being forgotten as the two main contenders vie for the last undecided voters in this highly competitive election.
The appeal of vice-presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman won’t decide the election, even though the debates seemed to prove that the bottoms of the tickets were filled by men who are more judicious than those at the top.
Though some pessimists cling to the idea that Lieberman’s candidacy as the first Jew on a major national ticket will spur anti-Semitism, no proof supports that. The response to Lieberman has been so positive that it even outstripped the predictions of optimists, like myself, who predicted that the senator would be a huge asset to the Democrats and to Vice President Al Gore.
Lieberman’s folksy style and intelligent, centrist approach have won him legions of fans who up until now had heard neither of him nor of his Sabbath observance. And his advocacy of a greater role for religion in our public life has resonated with a wide audience, despite the criticism he got on this score from Jewish liberals.
HOW BRIGHT IS HIS FUTURE?
Though four years is a lifetime in politics, if Gore does lose — and that is a big “if” — Lieberman’s name will inevitably be among those mentioned after the election as a likely Democratic presidential contender in the year 2004.
Am I getting ahead of myself? Maybe. But on Nov. 8, Joe Lieberman may be asking himself whether he wants to spend the next 48 months trying to become president of the United States. He will be one of the few who will have the name recognition, the political stature and the ability to raise the enormous amounts of cash necessary to make a run for the White House.
Though there would be great obstacles to overcome, Lieberman might have a chance to be the Democrat chosen to uproot the presidential shrub, should Republican George W. Bush be the incumbent four years from now.
I won’t pretend to know what he will decide or whether he would succeed in becoming the first Jewish president of the United States. But before we think more about that scenario, it is vital to spend some time going over some of the less savory aspects of Lieberman’s vice-presidential run.
The bad news — especially for those who, like me, have been a fan of Lieberman’s for years — is that the senator’s desire to be liked and to fit into his new situation has led to some very disappointing moments.
I can’t completely condemn him for his backtracking on certain issues once he was picked by Gore. The job of a vice-presidential candidate is to back his party’s choice, not to debate him. Lieberman’s 180-degree turn on issues like Social-Security reform and affirmative action were predictable, even though they chipped away at his reputation as the “conscience of the Senate.”
Lieberman’s subsequent pledge to be only a “noodge” of the entertainment industry rather than the nation’s leading opponent of Hollywood’s assault on America’s moral values was yet another step away from his principled past into the Clintonian mode of fundraising.
Lieberman is a tough politician who will do anything within the rules to win. If that means pandering to key Democrat constituencies, then that’s what he’ll do.
Though the notion that he would offend a major Democratic constituency such as the teachers unions seems much less likely than before, Lieberman’s assertion that he had not changed his mind about favoring school vouchers — but would not publicly oppose Gore on the issue — provided some reassurance to his admirers that behind his waffling, a man of conscience was still there waiting to be unleashed after he was elected.
Yet, there are other Lieberman actions that are not so easily rationalized. The most egregious of these was his statement that he would like to meet with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Backing off from his long-held criticism of affirmative action was one thing, but outreach to Farrakhan?
Has Lieberman lost his mind? Farrakhan is a hatemonger, and the Nation of Islam is a hate group. Sitting down with Farrakhan legitimizes him, as Lieberman well knows.
While all candidates make mistakes amid the strain of hectic campaign schedules, there is no excuse for Lieberman’s Farrakhan blunder. Jack Kemp, the GOP’s 1996 vice-presidential candidate, was justly skewered — and lost many Jewish votes — for a statement about Farrakhan that wasn’t nearly as dumb as Lieberman’s recent gaffe.
But as bad as that was, even more troubling has been Lieberman’s mealy-mouthed silence on recent events in Israel. While the senator was never a Likudnik (he has always been a strong supporter of the Oslo peace process), he was once outspoken about Israel’s right to Jerusalem and a keen defender of the Jewish state.
Since he assumed the mantle of Democratic veep contender, Lieberman has been careful to avoid saying anything that would mark him as being too pro-Israel. Rather than showing how little credence ought to be given to charges of dual loyalty, such as those leveled at him by Farrakhan, Lieberman has been acting as if he actually fears being seen as someone who cares about Israel.
When asked about this issue at the vice-presidential debate, he managed to give the impression that he was no more supportive of Israel in the crisis than Cheney (a man not known as an ardent friend of Israel). His flip-flop on Jerusalem is also disturbing. He has gone from being an ardent advocate of moving the U.S. embassy to Israel’s capital to a supporter of Bill Clinton’s refusal to do so until the peace talks are completed. Which is to say that the embassy may never move if it is up to Joe Lieberman.
TACTICAL RETREAT OR CHARACTER FLAW?
I still believe that Lieberman is a fine man and a great senator. But sometime between November and January, when he will either be preparing to take the oath of office as vice president or returning to the Senate to begin a possible run for the presidency, Lieberman is going to have to sit down and ask himself who and what he wants to be.
What we are talking about is not a tzitzit check, such as the times when the Matt Drudges of this world try to find out whether he ate anything on Tisha B’Av. Rather, this concerns whether Lieberman is so ambitious that he will sacrifice his beliefs merely to be elected. Along the path to power, every person must ask himself whether tactical compromises aren’t ultimately betrayals.
What we are watching now is the process by which a good man is being put to
the test by an unforgiving political marathon race. How Joe Lieberman answers
this challenge will help us determine whether he is truly ready to ascend to
one of America’s highest
JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.