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Jewish World Review /Sept. 9, 1998 / 18 Elul, 5758

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Draft Joe Lieberman!

A POTENTIALLY GREAT POLITICAL LEADER not only knows what the public feels in its heart, but feels it in his or her own heart. From that sense flows both credibility and compass. If and as the public senses such qualities, it can act with speed and purpose.

Last week's solemn and majestic speech by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., on the floor of U.S. Senate showed that what Lieberman believes is what the great majority of Americans believe, and what a great majority in Congress believes.
Lieberman delivering his speech
This: Bill Clinton's immoral behavior has done us dirt, and, much as we'd like to put it behind us, we'll have to wait for awhile until we figure out just what sort of rebuke he deserves.

I cannot recall a single political speech that has had such an impact all across the political spectrum. Lieberman was the boy who said the Emperor had no clothes. Of course! That's it! It was immoral, not just inappropriate! It was not just private acts, but private acts with massive public ramifications! It was corrupting our children and our culture! Even Clinton had to say, Amen.

It is a testament to the stature that Lieberman has gained in the nation's Capitol that there was next to no comment made that his speech might have been motivated by personal political gain. This, in a town where going to the grocery store is seen to have an agenda behind it. Lieberman is indeed a man of honor. Clearly, it was not a politically motivated address.

But that is not the same as saying that what happened will have no effect on Lieberman's political future.

Back in March of this year, after interviewing him, I wrote a column urging that Lieberman run for President in the 2000 Democratic primaries. I also suggested that he might well do that, and if he did it, he could win. The Connecticut papers picked it up. Lieberman dampened speculation. Like many others mentioned by mentioners, he said he'd only look at it after the 1998 Congressional elections. Unlike most other mentionees, he has apparently done nothing about it behind the scenes. But he did not say that he wasn't going to run.

Now the situation is different. The 1998 elections are just ahead. Lieberman has suddenly become a national figure.

I have not interviewed Lieberman for this column. I suspect he would not want to play any part in linking his own political future to the unraveling scandal while it is still unraveling. Properly so.

But what is binding on him is not binding on us. Lieberman is, in my judgment, the Democrat most qualified to be President of the United States. He is the Democrat, a realistic activist of the political center, who could get the most votes in a general election. If he can't, or won't, do anything about it now, that does not mean that voters and political leaders should not speak out, and start organizing.

What's in Lieberman's future now? Three scenarios present themselves. 1) If President Clinton should become ex-President Clinton, then the new President, Albert Gore, will nominate the new Vice President, who must then be confirmed by a majority of both houses of Congress. Lieberman would probably be Gore's most confirmable pick. He would send the right signal regarding what is proper and improper in American public life. He would offer Gore, who has been playing to the left side of the Democratic gallery, an opportunity to come back toward the mainstream of the political spectrum. That is where he has to be in order to be re-elected on his own in 2000.

2) After the Congressional elections, Lieberman could announce his candidacy for the Presidency in 2000. He could win the nomination, possibly even against a scandal-tainted Gore, and possibly early on, as a "national primary" now looms likely. It happens all the time to candidates who start out unknown. Think Willkie, Goldwater, Kennedy, McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Clinton. All such a potential candidate has to do is become better-known and well-funded, which Lieberman now is, and can be.

Lieberman should run as "the real Clinton." That is, the man who could bring his left-leaning party back to the center, working at it every day, not just when politically convenient, as Clinton too often has done. It can happen. Prime Minister Tony Blair, in England, is doing it.

3) Lieberman comes from Connecticut, roughly a 50-50 toss-up state. In 1994, a big Republican year, he got 67 percent of the vote in his run for Senate re-election. In 2000, if neither of the other scenarios work out, Lieberman can still run for Senate, and might possibly top 75 percent. He will be 58 years old.

Any or all of these scenarios is enhanced if Lieberman's supporters start a movement to draft Lieberman.


9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."