Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Jewish candidate for vice president, is in a world of political trouble. Facing a tight race for the Democratic nomination from Ned Lamont, he has already started to collect signatures to run as an independent, should he lose the primary on Aug. 8.
Lieberman's friends say he is being scapegoated by the left for his brave foreign policy centrism and support of Israel. He is this generation's Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, they suggest. And Jews, remembering the old foreign policy battles, should support him.
A Lieberman adviser said, "I find the behavior of a large segment of the Jewish community to be reprehensible and outrageous. When he's in trouble like this, they all ought to rally to him."
If this story line were true, a host of Jewish Democrats, centrist on foreign policy, such as Rep. Howard Berman (North Hollywood), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Rep. Jane Harman (Venice), would be under just as much assault, and the party would be on the verge of civil war. They are all doing fine, although Harman did face a strong primary challenger whom she defeated.
And it's not as if the Democrats have become a party of doves. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) voted for the war and won the 2004 presidential nomination. Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) supported the war and still leads the field for 2008. Lieberman has received the support of the overwhelming share of Democratic officeholders and party leadership, so he's hardly an isolated hero in the party's ranks. So why Lieberman?
Lieberman seems to genuinely like, admire, support and crave the approval of two men who are anathema to most Democrats: President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He might also be one of the last Democratic voters left in America who thinks the Iraq War was a great idea, brilliantly executed by a smart president, leaving America and Israel much stronger than before.
Even those who oppose an immediate pullout have a hard time arguing that the war was a great idea in the first place and that things are going quite well now. Lieberman told the New Yorker, "On Iraq, Bush has it right."
Last September, Lieberman returned starry-eyed from Iraq with glowing reviews of the president's Iraq policy, published in The Wall Street Journal. He particularly noted the large number of cellphones, an observation made all the more embarrassing by continuing sectarian violence.
The president then quoted him at length to show the wisdom of his policy and how at least one Democrat gets it. At the State of the Union address, Bush kissed him. That kiss may prove fatal, as Bush, who is much shrewder than Lieberman, noted to Larry King, when asked if he liked Lieberman: "You're trying to get me to give him a political kiss, which may be his death."
Lieberman's identification with the Bush inner circle was obvious as far back as the 2000 election. In the vice presidential debate with Cheney, Lieberman's body language made it obvious that even if he disagreed with Cheney, it was a mild dispute among mensches of the world, who understood each other. Cheney saw the opening created by the Democrat's eagerness to please, and he smilingly eviscerated Gore. Lieberman must have loved the post-debate reviews about how gentlemanly he was.
There is a market in the media for centrists who give their own party grief (see Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.]). Not only has Lieberman become Bush's favorite Democrat, he is also the favored Democrat on Republican-leaning Fox News. Before the Lamont challenge, he regularly went on the Sean Hannity show, where Democrats are routinely bashed. He angered Democrats by telling Hannity, "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."
The Bush-Cheney team reviles Democrats of all stripes, whether left, right or center. Bush, however, has a long history of picking out and cultivating individual Democrats, like a wolf culling a weak sheep from the safety of the flock. That way, no concessions need to be made to Democrats, generally, while the impression of bipartisanship remains.
On Medicare, Bush played on Sen. Ted Kennedy's (D-Mass.) ego to get the reform ball rolling, and then cut him out of the negotiations over the final Republican bill. For a while, the tame Democrat was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, until he began to look like a nut case.
And now, the best catch of all has been the eyes-wide-shut Lieberman who, unlike the others, has built a career out of being the wise and thoughtful centrist revered by the media talking heads.
Lieberman seems to be genuinely baffled and indeed petulant that his fellow Democrats won't let him have it both ways: To say he is a strong Democrat with a largely progressive record and to work hand-in-glove with the White House to denigrate his own long-suffering and battered party.
Try as he might to separate himself from Bush, with secondhand, lame lines like, "I know George Bush. I have worked against George Bush. I have even run against George Bush. But, Ned, I'm not George Bush." He may still fall victim to the Lamont ad that shows Lieberman morphing into Bush, with the words, "Joe Lieberman may say he represents us, but if it talks like George W. Bush and acts like George W. Bush, it's certainly not a Connecticut Democrat."
In a year that figures to be good for Democrats, Lieberman's fate is a lose-lose proposition that just has to be endured. Many Democrats can't figure out which outcome is worse.
If Lieberman wins the primary or wins as an independent, he will be even more insufferable. He might even join the Bush administration as secretary of defense, further hurting his party by leaving a Republican governor to select his replacement in the Senate. If he loses, he will become a martyr available to help the administration bash Democrats on foreign policy.
At least let's stop pretending that this is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. That is far too elevated an enterprise. This is really about the consequences of Lieberman wanting to have his cake and eat it, too.