- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The Democratic candidates for president in 2004 have made lots of noise in this premature political season, and most of the hoopla has come from opportunistic salvos about short-term political and economic circumstances. I wonder how these diatribes will seem four to six months from now, when the campaign will have begun in earnest and voters are actually paying attention.

Two Democrats probably won’t have to worry about their public statements concerning U.S. foreign policy. One of them is a candidate for president, and the other decided not to run. Both of them are named Joe. Joe Lieberman is the Connecticut senator who was Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000. If popular vote were the determining factor, we would be now calling him Vice President Lieberman. But it wasn’t, and he is running for the top job in 2004.

Mr. Lieberman is the former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which since 1985 has been trying to move the national Democratic Party to the American political center. Not until 1992 did the DLC find a presidential candidate who represented its views. Bill Clinton had been a former DLC chairman, and after fits and starts, he made his administration a DLC example by balancing the budget, paying down the national debt, creating the AmeriCorps and eschewing the class-warfare rhetoric which had previously been the lingua franca of the Democratic Party. Clinton chose as his running mate another DLCer, Al Gore.

When Mr. Gore was nominated to succeed Mr. Clinton in 2000, he chose Mr. Lieberman to be his running mate. It seemed then that the centrist transformation of the party was complete. But Mr. Gore, in one of the more curious strategies of recent times, took himself and Mr. Lieberman to the left side of the political debate, and although they won the popular vote, they lost key centrist states that would have given them a clear victory in the electoral college as well.

Mr. Lieberman strongly urged action against Saddam Hussein well before President Bush sent troops to Iraq earlier this year. As did most of the major presidential candidates (except Howard Dean), Mr. Lieberman supported the president until the postwar circumstances in Iraq became problematic. But unlike Sens. John Kerry, John Edwards and Mr. Clark, Mr. Lieberman has allowed no ambiguity in his support for U.S. goals is in the Middle East. (Rep. Dick Gephardt has done much the same.) This has made Mr. Lieberman anathema to the populist wing of his party which is isolationist. Because this wing has much to say in the nominating process, most political observers have written Mr. Lieberman off as someone who cannot be nominated.

Responding to this in recent months, Mr. Lieberman has increasingly been even more outspoken with his centrist views, facing outright hostility from some Democratic audiences for challenging the shibboleths of class warfare and isolationism. Mr. Lieberman is now thus the contrarian’s choice for an upset — if indeed an upset is possible. (Mr. Clark has apparently obeyed the Andy Warhol dictum, and is fading after 15 minutes.) The media barely acknowledges Mr. Lieberman’s bulldog approach, and probably won’t until there is a turnabout in Iraq and the economy.

If there is not, Mr. Dean will likely be easily nominated. If, however, our occupation forces get their act together and a popular Iraqi government emerges, the current Democratic frontrunner might be seriously challenged.

It is the other Democratic Joe who makes the above more coherent. Sen. Joe Biden has matured into becoming the senior voice in his party on foreign policy. The ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is the Arthur Vandenberg of the present day, a leader in his party who has placed bipartisan foreign policy above politics. That does not mean he has been uncritical of the postwar effort. Like Messrs. Lieberman and Gephardt, he solidly supported the president in the military action in Iraq. When the postwar situation deteriorated, he began to offer criticism privately and publicly. In contrast to his party’s presidential candidates (including Mr. Lieberman), Mr. Biden came forward immediately after Mr. Bush made policy changes in Iraq recently, and gave him strong support.

Mr. Biden has also criticized the Democratic candidates for their foreign policy statements. (Mr. Biden and DLC leaders have just announced a new centrist national security policy under the rubric progressive internationalism. It remains to be seen how this improves Bush policy, or if Mr. Lieberman will embrace it.) Mr. Biden has worked closely with another senator, Republican Richard Lugar, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and also one of the few giants in the current Senate.

Those Democrats who would undo or compromise what has been done in Iraq are on the wrong side of history. Mr. Bush and his team have brilliantly conducted the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. These were necessary responses to September 11 and the growing infection of global terrorism. The postmilitary efforts will require bipartisan patience. Thanks to two Democrats named Joe, there will likely be no Vichy shadow government in their party. Mr. Lieberman may not win his party’s nomination, but Mr. Dean, who is presumably neither a pacifist nor an isolationist, will have to change course if he does.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.


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