The two faces of Joseph Lieberman

His sometimes contradictory blend of liberalism and social conservatism has made him the top vote-grabber in modern Connecticut history.

Topics: George W. Bush, Democratic Party, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, Al Gore,

The first time I talked at length with Joseph Lieberman was around 1983. I was covering the Connecticut Statehouse for a weekly newspaper and Lieberman, elected attorney general a year earlier, showed up at our office accompanied only by his driver. Consumer protection and environmental cleanup were Lieberman’s calling cards, and were what he wanted to talk about that day.

A few weeks earlier, the same Joseph Lieberman had taken a drubbing from the Connecticut Supreme Court. Gov. William O’Neill, a socially conservative Democrat, had tried to cut off state Medicaid funding for abortion, with Lieberman taking the governor’s side. They lost. I asked Lieberman why he pursued the case. He paused, then in that sedulous way of his began to explain the responsibilities of an attorney general, the fiscal policies involved. It was all so even-keeled and dispassionate; not until his departure did I realize he had gently and earnestly blown a smoke cloud around the central question of why a Democratic administration wanted to deny poor women a medical service available to the more affluent.

With today’s selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Al Gore seeks to evoke some of the emotion that surrounded the election of John F. Kennedy as a Roman Catholic president in 1960. But there is far more to the nomination of Lieberman, an observant Jew, than some momentary calculation to overcome the Clinton moral stain. If Lieberman’s nomination represents a marker for American Jews, it says even more about the future of the Democratic Party.

What makes Lieberman’s nomination far more resonant than your typical vice-presidential nod is the man’s protean political career. On the one hand, there is the Joe Lieberman who arrived for a long-scheduled speech before the AFL-CIO’s Connecticut convention this morning: reminiscing about the state’s union leaders past, issuing fierce denunciation of anyone who would weaken workplace safety standards, calling for a higher minimum wage. This Joe Lieberman remains an environmental crusader and consumer rights advocate.

Then there is the other Joe Lieberman: The social conservative who won his Senate seat in 1988 with support from William Buckley and other conservative Republicans, running to the right of the civil libertarian and then-Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker.

The same Joe Lieberman has teamed up with Republican William Bennett to clean up rap lyrics, sponsored school voucher legislation and favors privatizing Social Security — just like George W. Bush. This Lieberman was a fervent ally of President Bush during the Gulf War and counts the far-right Cubans of Miami among his close political friends.

Al Gore wants both Joe Liebermans on his ticket. On the surface the reasons are simple: to counter the narrow conservatism of Dick Cheney and the callow inexperience of George W. Bush; to craft a ticket that is morally unassailable from the right, featuring a vice-presidential candidate who was among the first Democrats to openly criticize Clinton for the Lewinsky scandal even though the two men were old friends.

In fact, the reasons for Gore’s choice are far deeper, and rooted in Lieberman’s particular success in Connecticut. The story really begins back with Kennedy’s taboo-smashing campaign in 1960. Anti-Catholic bigotry was pervasive to an extent impossible to imagine today. Last weekend C-SPAN rebroadcast footage of the 1960 Democratic Convention in which both Kennedy and his rival Lyndon Johnson addressed the issue over and over again — sometimes joking, sometimes inveighing, but unable to escape addressing the suspicion that a Catholic president would owe a higher loyalty to the Pope than the people.

Kennedy’s two victories that year — first over Johnson for the Democratic nomination, then against Vice President Richard Nixon — were in part the work of a Connecticut politician named John Bailey, the Democratic national chairman and Kennedy’s close ally. Bailey was a master of political currency, brokering years of patronage and peace between urban ethnic ward bosses and Southern Democrats.

John Bailey was the young Joe Lieberman’s political rabbi. Lieberman, who grew up in a working-class enclave of Stamford, Conn., wrote two books about Bailey and studied carefully the circles of patronage and influence that bound the old Democratic Party together. Lieberman ran his first campaign for state Senate in 1970 and eventually became Senate majority leader, a position of considerable influence.

By the time Lieberman was elected to statewide office in 1982, John Bailey was dead and so were the old rules he worked by. Cities and labor unions were both on the decline; suburbs and Reaganism on the rise. The traditional parties, too, were beginning to erode: By the mid-1980s in Connecticut, unaffiliated voters were a significant force, outnumbering Republicans by a considerable margin.

It was Joe Lieberman’s unique political insight that the new suburbs required new political currency — a substitute for the patronage system which in the past assured Democratic voters’ loyalty regardless of a particular politician’s program. Instead of bricks-and-mortar public works projects, environmental protection; instead of a bucket of coal at Christmas, protecting an upper-middle-class population’s consumer rights. By his 1988 campaign against the three-term incumbent Weicker, Lieberman had joined that suburban agenda to a “family values” sensibility that appealed both to the state’s older conservative Democrats, like Gov. O’Neill, and to conservative Republicans.

If Bailey was Lieberman’s political rabbi, Lieberman, in turn, has been rabbi to a generation of New Democrat politicians, including Bill Clinton, who worked on Lieberman’s first Senate campaign, and Al Gore. For years, Lieberman has been chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the key think tank for New Democrats. Under Lieberman’s leadership, the DLC has played a key role in forging more conservative Democratic policies on crime, on privatization of Social Security and on NAFTA and other trade agreements. The Joe Lieberman who in the morning lauds the old power of the AFL-CIO in Hartford is in the afternoon back in Washington doing everything to strengthen the economic forces that make organized labor weaker.

What Gore understands — and hopes will translate nationally — is that Lieberman’s blend of suburban environmentalism and social conservatism has made him the top vote-grabber in modern Connecticut history. Lieberman typically runs ahead of all other Democrats on the ticket, pulling independent and Republican voters in large numbers.

The fact that he is Jewish helps in some quarters. So does his unctuous, occasionally self-deprecating demeanor. (A distinguished Jewish scholar tells of giving a speech, in Yiddish, at an event where Lieberman was on the podium. Afterward, Lieberman congratulated the scholar for the fine speech. “I didn’t know you speak Yiddish,” the scholar said. Lieberman admitted he didn’t — but thought it was a fine speech anyway.)

But what counts more than anything is an ability to curry favor with seemingly contradictory constituencies all at the same time, maintaining his voting record on labor and reproductive rights even while doing more than any other national figure to pull the Democratic Party rightward.

Gore’s choice of Lieberman proves several things. First, it suggests that Ralph Nader’s Green Party challenge is not pressuring Gore to turn left: Either Gore is taking liberals’ votes for granted or he’s written Nader voters off altogether.(Connecticut liberals have resented Lieberman for years but been been powerless to stop his juggernaut at the polls. For liberals generally, a Gore-Lieberman ticket is a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand it shows just how far to the right Gore is willing to play. On the other, it gets Lieberman out of the Senate and out of consideration for the Supreme Court.)

It also shows tensions between the Gore campaign and Democrats in Congress; a Gore-Lieberman victory would give Connecticut Republican Gov. John Rowland a chance to name Lieberman’s successor, weakening the effort to forge a Democratic majority in Congress.

Far from being schizophrenic, the two Joe Liebermans represent a carefully calculated political persona, which is at the core of Al Gore’s own New Democrat faith. Yet it also suggests that the Gore campaign may have missed a key lesson of the still-resonating impeachment of President Clinton: When push comes to shove, Americans will choose a rake over a sermonizer, and secular realism over sanctimonious morality. The short-term strategy in choosing Lieberman may be to anchor the ticket and convey maturity against the callow Bush and hotheaded Dick Cheney. But for some voters, will Gore-Lieberman prove too pious a pill?

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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