Say It Is So, Joe!

When Al Gore tapped Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman to be his Democratic running mate last August, there was plenty of concern among party liberals: Why was Gore (who many thought was already too much of a New Democrat) teaming with the chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)? And was Lieberman, best known for remaining above the partisan fray--and for being the first Democrat to condemn Bill Clinton's sexual shenanigans publicly--really a good fit for a deeply partisan campaign? At first it looked like maybe not. Even as Gore was steering the campaign in a decisively populist direction with his convention speech, Lieberman was spending much of convention week having to assure skeptical delegates of his Democratic bona fides on key issues like affirmative action and privatization of Social Security.

But something happened over the next four months. Lieberman grabbed hold of the Gore message more fulsomely and effectively than almost anyone expected--and with even more partisan ardor, some say, than Gore. He pitched his boss's programs and attacked the GOP alternatives and generally hewed closely to the traditional Democratic playbook.

Democrats took note. Liberals who had never known much about him, or who had little use for him if they did, embraced the would-be vice president warmly. And many of his New Democrat allies expressed a mounting disappointment bordering on disgust. "Joe made no effort to lay out the New Democrat agenda," says one prominent New Democrat in the House. "We blame Gore first and foremost. But would it have killed [Lieberman] to have pushed the message a bit?" Says another New Democrat party operative: "There was a lot of 'Who lost Joe?' talk."

Did something really change in Joe Lieberman during his four-month sprint across the national stage? Will the commitments he made as Al Gore's number two keep him from resuming his centrist stance? Or did his glimpse of national office merely reorder his short-term political priorities?

Lieberman has a history of engaging in hard-fought, partisan campaigns only to bounce back to the conciliatory center. The most noteworthy example was his bruising, and successful, campaign to unseat Senator Lowell Weicker in 1988. But even those inclined to discount the notion of a new Joe Lieberman concede that something did happen over the course of the campaign, especially during the harrowing six weeks after November 7 when Florida hung in the balance. "He does have a deeper partisan sensibility now," says a former aide. "In some ways, he was radicalized by what happened."

The unsuccessful vice presidential candidate's first legislative gambit in the next Congress may give a hint of his future direction. Lieberman plans to introduce an education bill, originally introduced in the last Congress, that is largely a product of the DLC policy shop. The bill focuses on accountability measures, substantially increased federal funding, and a consolidation of a host of Clintonite education initiatives from the last eight years. In his first public comments since Gore's concession speech, Lieberman pointed to his education bill as fertile ground for bipartisan compromise. Indeed, Lieberman's plan has broad similarities to George W. Bush's education proposal--with the key exception that Lieberman's bill contains no voucher component and Bush's does. And Lieberman has sent clear signals that including vouchers makes the bill a "nonstarter."

That just may be the difference. The old Lieberman might have been inclined to keep everything--vouchers included--on the table and fashion a bill in the middle, perhaps with disproportionately Republican support. His comments regarding vouchers seem to signal an intention to end up with a bill that the great majority of Democrats can support. But ambiguities remain. Is Lieberman saying that vouchers would be a nonstarter for him as a matter of policy? (His staff says he still supports vouchers as test programs, so long as they don't draw funds from existing education dollars.) Or does he simply mean that they're a nonstarter because too many Democrats oppose them? He seems to be saying a little of both. How he resolves that ambiguity may demonstrate how much or how little he's really changed.

But if Lieberman is to have a future as a party leader, the question isn't really what in his heart of hearts he thinks about school vouchers; it's whether he chooses to emphasize an issue that most members of his party strongly disagree with. Michigan's David Bonior, the House minority whip, is "pro-life"--yet he's one of the most partisan Democrats in Congress; no one worries that he's going to betray the party on its major issues. Can his congressional colleagues say the same about Lieberman?

Actually, at this point, probably so. Having signed on as a supporter of affirmative action, an opponent of Social Security privatization, and a critic of most of the rest of the Bush policy agenda, there's little chance he would recant these positions even if he were inclined to do so. He'd look like a craven opportunist. And many observers have overstated how much Lieberman--even before he joined the national ticket--departed from the Democratic fold on key issues, anyway. He did, for instance, turn back repeated entreaties to endorse the findings of the Breaux-Thomas Medicare reform commission during the last Congress.

But the most striking evidence that his national candidacy transformed Joe Lieberman lies in the differing ways he and the DLC have reacted to his ticket's defeat. The DLC's persistent carping about campaign strategy notwithstanding, its fingerprints were all over Al Gore's campaign. DLC operatives were involved in the convention prep; they were part of the debate prep. And for all his newly discovered populism, Gore never strayed too far from New Democrat orthodoxy on a lot of issues--free trade, a balanced budget, and welfare reform, among others. If Gore had won, DLC-ers would have been lining up for top positions, and we would have been subjected to press conferences explaining why Gore's victory was the ultimate vindication of budget-balancing, welfare-reforming, free-trading New Democrats.

Yet when Gore finally conceded defeat, the DLC-ers were first to unsheathe their long knives and point them toward the vice president, promiscuously spreading the word that he wouldn't be invited to future DLC events and showing an unseemly eagerness to turn his defeat into one more chapter in the DLC's we-told-you-so morality play. You don't have to be a labor liberal to believe that the DLC's response to Gore's defeat betrays a misunderstanding of what it means to be part of a political party.

But all indications are that Lieberman has taken a very different lesson from this campaign. "What the DLC needs is less another Mark Penn poll showing how and why they're right and a little more roll-up-your-sleeves work," says one source close to Lieberman. "The DLC has to decide: Do they want to be part of the party when it rises again or are they just a wing? That's a question Lieberman is in the process of answering. In the campaign, he became part of the whole party. He didn't necessarily like all the situations he was put in, but he understands [the relationship between the different wings of the party] better than most of the leadership of the DLC."

Indeed, successful party leaders seldom resolve issue disagreements within their political coalitions. Instead they bridge divides by appealing to a common set of values that resonate across the intraparty divide. None of the card-carrying liberals inside or outside the campaign had any illusion that Joe Lieberman came into the Gore organization as one of them; he was, after all, chairman of the DLC. But he soon connected with the party's base constituencies, who embraced him to an unexpected degree. Of course, the enthusiasm of the campaign season can make eliding such differences easier. But Lieberman established good relationships with national union leaders and campaigned well among union audiences. He was also warmly received by members of African-American church congregations, many of whom heard their pastors read from an essay on civil rights written by a young Joe Lieberman before they heard the middle-aged senator speak. Moreover, Lieberman's effusive religiosity helped warm African Americans and other party constituencies to the ticket. The politics of values and morality have always been a challenge for Democrats because of their diverse and largely secular coalition. Lieberman was able to overcome this, in part through personality and charm, but more significantly because as a Jew, his religiosity carried little of the intolerance and exclusion that is usually attached to Christian conservatism. All this gives him potential to become a party leader. "He has the opportunity to bridge the social and cultural and economic divisions in the party and let the party speak with one voice in the future," says a prominent liberal from the Gore campaign.

No one should expect Joe Lieberman to become the Senate's Dick Gephardt; he will never, in either his policy prescriptions or his political style, be a stalwart liberal like the House minority leader. But the 2000 campaign has given him the opportunity to play a key role for the Democrats. And unlike some at the DLC who have been roundly trumpeting Lieberman's new prominence as vindication of their principles, the senator himself seems to grasp that much of his influence comes precisely from his role as a bridge between sometimes hostile wings of the party. Even one of the capital's most prominent liberal activists, who roundly condemned the Lieberman pick when it was first announced last August, now sees an important leadership role for Lieberman within the party. "Unless," he cautions, "Lieberman moves back to the dark side." ยค