Joe Lieberman is the maverick this time around

Posted: Sep 11, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- All candidates for a party's presidential nomination should be Orthodox Jews, at least while campaigning. They would all have a duty, as Joseph Lieberman does, to repair to their hearths from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, for a needed respite from the physical and moral wear-and-tear of incessant pandering to the party's most ideologically demanding cadre, its nominating electorate.

Actually, Lieberman needs this respite less than his rivals because he panders less, having a long record of centrism at the national level. That is his perhaps insurmountable problem.

A comparison with Sen. Scoop Jackson in 1976 is imperfect but instructive. Jackson's strong stands on national security issues were unpalatable to the party that four years earlier had nominated George McGovern. Today, the Democratic base is in a similar distemper that Howard Dean's campaigning is deepening.

This distemper -- President Bush is as bad as it is possible to be, and Attorney General Ashcroft is worse -- calls to mind an exasperated Englishman's characterization of the Irish as people who ``do not gladly suffer common sense.'' To much of the Democrats' activist cadre, this, from Lieberman in the recent debate in New Mexico, is insufferable: ``I believe that the war against Saddam was right, and that the world is safer with him gone.'' Never mind that most of the country agrees with that.

Dean has been the Democrats' flavor of the month for many months. Initially he got abundant media coverage, the theme of which was how difficult it was for a small-state former governor, supposedly the political equivalent of a country church mouse, to get coverage. Now he gets abundant coverage partly because he says so many overripe things, such as this: ``John Ashcroft is a descendant of Joseph McCarthy.'' That is distilled Deanism: It couples two of the Democratic left's fright figures in one sentence that, considered calmly, as the Democratic left is unlikely to do, is not so much false as unintelligible.

Lieberman's wager is that he can finish no higher than third in Iowa and New Hampshire and still be nominated. He says ``my opportunity'' is the cluster of seven events the week after New Hampshire. His task is to be the -- definite article, the -- alternative. That means being the last man, besides Dean, standing after Iowa and New Hampshire.

If Dean wins neither place, he is done, and neither Gephardt nor Kerry, having probably won one each (Iowa and New Hampshire respectively), is invincible. If Dean wins both -- arguably the ideal outcome for Lieberman -- Gephardt and Kerry are done. Then Lieberman can hope to prevail with the less liberal electorates in Delaware, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota, New Mexico and especially South Carolina, where perhaps 40 percent of primary participants will be African-Americans.

If Lieberman wins South Carolina, it will be partly because, he says, ``a certain bonding'' with African-Americans occurred in the 2000 campaign. It also will be partly because of the resonance among blacks of his religiosity. And it will be partly, he says, a reprise of 1960, when Lieberman, then 18, watched John Kennedy trying to become the first Catholic elected president. Lieberman recalls thinking: ``If he does well, he opens doors for all of us.'' African-Americans, he thinks, may feel the same about the first Jewish candidate for president from a major political party.

Mark Penn, pollster for Lieberman's campaign, is nimble at the art of finding silver linings on clouds. He says, in effect: Pity poor Dean. He has already been on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Are they apt to do that again, even if he wins early contests? And Penn notes that Dean's Vermont has ``no inner city problems Democrats can relate to,'' and a budget too small to pose problems that can test a chief executive.

In 2000, Lieberman, embracing his role as Al Gore's running mate, emulated Henri of Navarre, the French sovereign who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism to preserve his power, blithely explaining that ``Paris is well worth a mass.'' For Lieberman, being on the ticket was worth trimming on some issues (tempering his criticism of Hollywood's cultural coarsening, backing away from school choice through vouchers).

Dean fancies himself a bold risk-taker as he tells Democratic activists exactly what they want to hear. It is, sad to say, really risky in today's Democratic Party, which is tethered to teachers unions, for Lieberman to say that he will soon vote for legislation to establish an experimental voucher program for the poor children caught in the District of Columbia's disastrous schools.