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George W. Lieberman | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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George W. Lieberman

If there was one thing that rational political observers agreed upon after last November's Democratic debacle, it was that Democrats need to do a much better job of distinguishing themselves from the Republicans.

That recognition should dim the prospects of Joe Lieberman as a serious presidential prospect in 2004. After all, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted, Lieberman is famous for taking conservative stands that "rankle (the) liberal Democrats who comprise the core of the party."

Yet, with his Monday declaration, Lieberman is officially in the running. And by many estimations -- especially those of conservative commentators for whom Lieberman has long been the Democrat of choice -- he is a leading contender for his party's nomination.

Lieberman's position at or near the head of the pack of Democratic contenders has more to do with the fact that he was the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee than with enthusiasm among Democrats for his positions. That's because, while he seeks to be the party's standard-bearer in the 2004 contest, he has been a frequent and enthusiastic ally of the Bush administration on many of the most critical issues of the past two years.

Lieberman says he wants to campaign as "a different kind of Democrat." That he certainly is.

While the majority of Congressional Democrats have expressed clear reservations about the Bush administration's rush to launch a war with Iraq, for instance, Lieberman has been cheerleader-in-chief for the Bush line.

Even before the president began pressing for war with Iraq, Lieberman was beating the battle drums for "regime change." One of the leading Senate backers of the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution -- which was supported by only 10 of 55 Democrats in the Senate at the time -- he remains a far more outspoken advocate for a new war with Iraq than many Republicans. Lieberman co-sponsored the Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq. Indeed, at the Stamford, Connecticut, press conference where he announced his candidacy Monday, Lieberman declared, "I'm grateful that President Bush has focused on Iraq."

Lieberman went on to criticize Bush for being too soft on North Korea, criticizing the administration for "taking the military option off the table" with regard to the regime in Pyongyang.

In addition to promoting a Republican-lite line regarding foreign policy, Lieberman frequently echoes the GOP line on domestic social and economic issues. To a greater extent than any other Democrat seeking the 2004 nomination at this point, Lieberman has found himself in coalition with the religious right. Lieberman has made common cause with former Vice President Dan Quayle, the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others who condemn the entertainment industry for promoting what the senator calls "amoral" programming.

Lieberman has been the Bush administration's most prominent Democratic ally in efforts to develop voucher programs to divert public funds to private schools. He's also a leading supporter of proposals to allow moments of silence in public school classrooms, when Lieberman acknowledges that students could engage in prayer. During the 2000 campaign, it was not Bush, the born-again Christian Republican, but Lieberman, the Orthodox Jewish Democrat, who said of Americans: "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

Lieberman is not so rigid a conservative as some of his Republican allies in debates over vouchers, school prayer and forcing standards on the entertainment industry - like many New England Republicans, for instance, he supports reproductive and gay rights. He has a far better record on race-related issues than southern Republicans such as former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. And he is generally more easygoing than his Republican counterparts in the Congress. But Lieberman's much-reported public moralizing led Rabbi Michael Lerner to comment that, "Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal practice, but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone far away from the best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has none of that prophetic voice that leads Jews to criticize our own Jewish community and Israel in the name of Torah values. He has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the oppressed that would place their needs above the needs of the wealthy."

There is no question that Lieberman's greatest area of common cause with conservative Republicans has been on issues of concern to corporations. That was obvious during the 107th Congress when, as chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and one of the most prominent Democrats in the Senate, he failed to push for the sort of aggressive, no-stones-unturned investigations of corporate ethics and responsibility that the Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing scandals demanded.

Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's agenda was on display during 2002's extended debate over whether Congress should hand the Bush Administration Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bitterly opposed by organized labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups, the Fast Track proposal was the top priority of corporate interests during the 107th Congress.

That was hardly the only example of Lieberman siding with corporate interests in opposition to labor and environmental groups on trade issues. His has been a consistent vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Most-Favored-Nation trading status for China and the general corporate free-trade agenda, paralleling the position of corporation-funded and militantly pro-business Democratic Leadership Council.

Lieberman, a former DLC chair, said that his selection as the Democratic party's 2000 vice presidential nominee "was surely a recognition of the enduring values and new ideas of the New Democratic movement." About that, he is surely correct.

The question that remains is this one: Do the voters who will decide the Democratic primaries and caucuses of 2004 really share the values of Lieberman and other DLC stalwarts who have battled to steer the party to the right? Or will they reject a Lieberman candidacy that is guaranteed to blur the margins of distinction between the two major parties even more than in the disasterous 2002 election cycle?

As George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University replied when asked about Lieberman's prospects as a presidential contender: "Democrats might want someone with a more of a Democratic edge."

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