Lieberman and the Left
August 15, 2000
DEBATE HAS been raging about whether or not Al Gore's vice presidential candidate, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, is a liberal whose deeply held belief in Judaism, and his membership in an Orthodox congregation, is a cloak behind which his true views are hidden. Already there are signs that he is backtracking on areas in which he previously had sharply divergent views from the Democratic platform, as well as those of the party's presidential candidate, Vice-President Al Gore. Nevertheless, to depict Lieberman as a traditional liberal on the left wing of his party, a Ted Kennedy in a religious cloak, is a hard sell. Numerous pundits and editorial writers have spelled out the areas in which Senator Lieberman differs from Gore. For those who have not been following the details, they include support of school-choice vouchers, support to partial privatization of social security, support of tort reform via changes in product-liability laws, support to big drug corporations on some legislative reform they favor, and most importantly, he is a keen opponent of affirmative action. Indeed, on "Meet the Press" this past Sunday, Lieberman acquitted himself well when put to the test by NBC's Tim Russert. Rather than back down on his views, Lieberman told Russert that he supported Proposition 209 in California, which eliminated affirmative action by the state government, and reiterated what he had told the Democratic Leadership Council in 1996, that it "sounds like a statement of basic American principles." His concern, he noted, was "whether some affirmative action programs had become quotas." Somewhat facetiously, The Washington Times editorial suggested that perhaps Senator Lieberman should have a debate with Vice-President Gore. They have a point. Writing in National Review, Linda Chavez recalled that at the White House conference Clinton held with his critics on race policy, Al Gore was the single worst person there. He was an ardent defender of racial preferences and the strongest supporter of affirmative action in the administration.
All of this means big trouble for Gore, particularly among the left-wing of the Democratic Party, whose delegates dominate those in attendance at this week's Democratic convention, and whose base needs to be strongly motivated to get out the vote for their ticket. Already, Cong. Maxine Waters (CA) has said that Lieberman's position on affirmative action is troubling to her, and these kinds of comments indicate a low turnout among African-American voters that the Democrats usually count on. The party, it seems, is hardly unified. Gore hopes that Lieberman will count for the centrist and moderate vote he seeks, while the far-left and activist wing will reluctantly vote for them anyway, because if they don't, it means a Bush-Cheney presidency. And then there is the still unknown Nader factor, and the Green Party's hope that those disillusioned Democratic activists will pull the lever for their candidate.
Writing in The Washington Post last week, the political columnist E.J. Dionne, who advocates a "third way" solution to resurrect liberalism, commented aptly that the Gore campaign's hope to run a "tough class-oriented campaign against Republicans as the party of privilege" is harmed by having Lieberman on the ticket, since as Dionne wrote, "he has won plaudits from the right for supporting capital gains tax cuts and for saying many nice things about Social Security privatization." That Lieberman, at the campaign's request, wrote an unpublished Op-Ed piece last June, saying that he had rethought his original position, has hardly helped. Rather than appear convincing, it makes Lieberman seem to be just another politician, ready to make the appearance of changing his views to fit the presidential candidate's own position.
In the meantime, the left-wing columnists, professors and activists have been putting out their own view of Lieberman, and it is hardly a friendly one. While most mainstream commentators have praised the courage and independence of Gore for being the first candidate to give a spot on the party's ticket to a Jewish American, the left wing sees this decision a lot differently. Writing on the <www.belief.net> website, Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of the left-wing Jewish magazine Tikkun, offered a scathing, long essay titled "Bad for the Jews, Bad for the Country." To Lerner, Lieberman and the DLC are a leader in the effort to make the Democratic Party one that caters "to the needs of Wall Street and the upper middle class." Like Nader, whose campaign themes Lerner echoes, he sees the Clinton-Gore years as not an era of prosperity, butone of growing inequality and a decline of spending on necessary social services. As for the Jewish factor, Lerner clearly resents that the first Jewish major ticket candidate holds positions far removed from the majority of secular American Jews, who have traditionally been on the liberal side of the spectrum, even as they have moved up the economic ladder in the nation. He sees Lieberman as one who betrays what Lerner argues comes from the Torah- " a commitment to social justice"- and instead favors identification "with America's elites of wealth and power." Evidently, Michael Lerner's arrogance is such that Judaism to him means left-wing politics, to which he gives a religious cover. As he puts it so crudely, Lieberman stands with those Jews who "abandon the moral and spiritual vision." That is a vision that only he - the author of the now aptly ridiculed "politics of meaning"- supposedly understands.
Moreover, Lerner repeats the anti-Semitic canard about Jews actually holding too much power in America. As he so delicately writes, "it's true about the sector of Jews who Lieberman represents." If only Michael Lerner was running for office on a Nader-Lerner ticket, of course, then the power would be justified. Or if Gore had picked Senator Barbara Boxer, he would have a Jewish candidate with the right kind of politics, not one who uses Judaism to "accelerate the interests of the elites." Someone might pause to ask Rabbi Lerner why so many African-Americans support vouchers for students, and why opposition to it comes only from the elites and the teacher's unions?
Joining Lerner in similar observations is the Whiting Fellow in History at Columbia University,David Greenberg, a former editor at The New Republic and a contributor to the online magazine Slate. Writing on another liberal website, <www.TomPaine.com>, Greenberg objects to Lieberman on two different grounds. First, he disdains the idea that Gore needs someone who is a self-proclaimed centrist from the DLC crowd. He ignores, of course, that Gore himself is supposedly a DLC centrist Democrat, and not a traditional left liberal. But he challenges the widely held idea that the Democrats need a candidate who has to separate himself from Bill Clinton, whom Mr. Greenberg thinks is the most popular, successful and strong leader the party has had in ages. Rather than praise Lieberman for his criticism of Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky story became public, he attacks him, even though Lieberman did not vote for impeachment. Indeed, he attacks Lieberman for pouncing on Clinton in September 1998, "the moment when Clinton was most vulnerable," something that Greenberg finds "unforgivable." If only Congress had not prohibited the third term, and we could have Bill again! Then I'm sure Mr. Greenberg would be happy. Lieberman a man of principle? Not to Greenberg. Rather, he is "mealy-mouthed, hairsplitting" and "legalistic;" which to me, sounds like your typical liberal Democrat-certainly not a Joe Lieberman.
Worse, Greenberg almost says-Lieberman is really not a Jew at all, but one who holds to an "old-fashioned, deeply Christian notion of morality." An Orthodox Jew, he probably condemns adultery, rejects pluralism and demonizes the 1960s. He stands with those Christians who want to oust Clinton and "reinstate [a] fundamentalist Christian outlook." In its place, Greenberg favors "a liberal set of values" that is based on "inclusiveness and pluralism," something that Greenberg posits could not be shared by the believer Lieberman, since in his eyes, Orthodox religious belief precludes commitment to inclusiveness. He thinks that the "majority of American Jews" have always stood for "liberal toleration," but these Jews are "overwhelmingly on the left." Here, we see the spectacle of an American historian proclaiming that true Jews must be on the left---again, Judaism not as a religion, but as an offspring of liberal politics. Those Jews who think independently on issues - like the Democrat Lieberman - are by necessity part of "a revanchist war of old American's Christian morality against the new America's 'Jewish' morality." And being a good Jew means to Mr. Greenberg, that one must stand among the ranks of Clinton's defenders. As he writes:
It's no coincidence that Clinton's leading defenders were Jews, blacks and wome-
Nor is it surprising that in their final interrogation the House Republicans targeted three people: Sidney Blumenthal, a Jew; Vernon Jordan, an African American; and Monica Lewinsky, a Jew and a woman.
Does this Columbia University historian really believe that Monica Lewinsky was targeted because she was a Jew and a woman; that Vernon Jordan, fixer extraordinaire who sought a top job for the inexperienced (job-wise) Lewinsky was picked for questioning because he was black; and that Clinton's chief apologist, Mr. Blumenthal, was criticized because he was a secular Jew? If so, it says a lot about the standards employed for awarding the position of Fellow at a great university. And while even the President says he supported and was grateful for Lieberman's public criticism of his behavior, Mr. Greenberg says he "betrayed his friend of thirty years." And for good measure, he says that Lieberman "betrayed American Jewry" and cast his lot "with the Christian right." I hope that Senator Lieberman doesn't read this; it might make him think he was on the wrong ticket.
And finally, there is the purely political version of the above; this time it comes from The Nation magazine's Washington editor, David Corn, also writing this time on the <www.TomPaine.com> site. Corn is upset that on both sides of the political spectrum, Lieberman is being viewed as a man of morality, of "sound character and firm principles." He wonders what would observers have said if Gore had picked Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota , a left liberal Jew, as his running mate. Wellstone, he surmises, would not have been "celebrated as a moral compass in a suit." Mr. Corn does not pause to note that it might have had something to do with the fact that although Wellstone stands firmly on principle in espousal of his left wing positions, he had not one thing to say about Clinton's morality, as Lieberman did. And of course, Lieberman takes positions that Corn, as a liberal, objects to - such as tort reform.Like Nader, he charges Lieberman with being "permissive regarding corporate responsibility." If you support a centrist Democratic Party, and align yourself with the DLC, then to Corn you are per se a defender of "institutional sleaze."
Joining Corn with the same argument is the once radical journalist Robert Scheer, now a shill for Clinton at the Los Angeles Times. Scheer is furious because in picking Lieberman, Gore somehow implied that he had to separate himself from Clinton, whom Mr. Scheer thinks is one of the truly great 20th Century presidents. Just play Lieberman's post Lewinsky speech, he says, and you have "the entire ad campaign for George W. Bush." But if the public loves Clinton just as Scheer does, they why would they respond to Lieberman's arguments, which are based on the premise that Clinton had in fact acted in an immoral fashion? In his tough prose, Scheer asks "why then should Gore pick as a running mate the very senator who betrayed Clinton at a time when the right-wing jackals could taste the president's blood?" His answer: Lieberman is a "Cheney-like concession to the politics of the right." He is a man whom Scheer thinks "obnoxious;" a man who dares to criticize "the right's favorite scapegoat, Hollywood." When Lieberman talks about the entertainment industry's corruption of values, he is talking about the vicious hatred of women, blacks and gays in rap music, the violence and excessive sex in film and television. But to Scheer, he is justifying "racial segregation and anti-Semitism," which is what Scheer thinks Hollywood was all about in the old days. Chiding Lieberman, he says that the culture even ignored the Holocaust. Perhaps he does not realize that it is only in the past decade or so that the Holocaust has become a point of major concern; that in the 40's and 50's, even the entire Jewish community stayed silent about the meaning of the event.
What this adds up to, in so many words, is a growing disillusionment with the Gore-Clinton ticket on the part of the Left, a strong objection to the choice of Lieberman as Gore's running mate, and a continual pounding on Lieberman's politics that can only work to throw a bucket of water on the base of the Democratic Party, causing many of the activists to stay at home on election day, vote for Nader, or take the day off and go to the movies. If I was George W. Bush, I would be smiling a great deal. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Ronald Radosh is a regular columnist and book reviewer for FrontPageMagazine.com. A former leftist and currently Professor Emeritus of History at City University of New York, Radosh has written many books, including The Rosenberg File (with Joyce Milton). His soon-to-be-published memoir is entitled Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.
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