Two Jewish McCain Backers, Two Fates

By Brett Lieberman

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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Washington, D.C. — At a time when a record number of Jews will serve in the next Congress, two of the most prominent Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill find their careers and influence heading in opposite directions.

LIEBERMAN: The Connecticut senator is facing a backlash due to his support for the candidacy of John McCain.
LIEBERMAN: The Connecticut senator is facing a backlash due to his support for the candidacy of John McCain.

At 45, Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, the lone Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, is at the top of his game. He’s cast as bright and politically conservative, receives frequent mention as a rising star in GOP circles and is in line to be the No. 2 ranking House Republican.

Then there’s Senator Joe Lieberman, who at 66 is still considered young by the standards of the U.S. Senate and is arguably Congress’s most identifiable Jewish member. A mere eight years after serving as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, the senator from Connecticut is regarded by many Democrats with contempt and branded a traitor, and, at least for the moment, his political future appears rather bleak.

He faces a November 18 meeting with Democratic colleagues, where he’ll have to plead his case to retain chairmanship of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and make amends following his 10-month campaign for the opposition, which included a high-profile speech at the Republican National Convention.

While president-elect Barack Obama, former president Bill Clinton and senior party leaders have indicated they want Lieberman to continue to caucus with Democrats, many Democrats aren’t quite ready to forget that during the presidential campaign, he supported Republican presidential nominee John McCain and criticized Obama.

“He did what he thought was right, and he’ll have to live with it,” a Senate aide said. “Nobody is going to say he was a principled traitor.”

The different positions in which Cantor and Lieberman find themselves are a reflection of personal decisions, such as Lieberman’s support for his friend McCain and for President Bush’s foreign policy agenda, and the shifting fortunes of the two major political parties.

Cantor is in the right place at the right time when many Republicans on Capitol Hill and beyond are looking for a new breed of leader. He has even been mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 2012. But his meteoric rise — and the fact that he’s in line to succeed House Republican Whip Roy Blunt — is no accident, say those who have watched Cantor since his 2000 election.

“Eric Cantor is obviously a skilled and ambitious political veteran even at a young age, and he allied himself to the right people to be part of the extended Republican team in the last few years,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.

Congressional aides said that Cantor’s Jewish faith was not central to his rise in GOP leadership, but they acknowledge that it doesn’t hurt, as the Republican Party looks to grow beyond its political base and image as a party dominated by Christian conservatives.

“Clearly there is dissatisfaction among Republicans in the House who are looking for bold new leadership. He is one of the faces of that new generation of leadership,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Brooks predicts it’s only a matter of time before Cantor becomes the House Republican leader.

His youthful appearance may also inject some new life into the GOP. “He looks like he had his bar mitzvah five years ago,” Rothenberg noted.

Lieberman, on the other hand, had fallen out of favor among many Democrats long before he backed McCain. He was re-elected as an Independent after losing the 2006 primary in part because of his backing for Bush and the Iraq War. He continued to caucus with Democrats until a couple of months ago, when his presence was unwelcome after he campaigned for McCain and then delivered his prime-time speech at the Republican convention.

Voters often say they want their elected leaders to put principles ahead of politics, but it hasn’t worked out that way for Lieberman, who cast his decision to back McCain in nonpartisan terms, based on the desire to support the candidate he felt had the strongest national security and foreign policy experience. Had McCain won, Lieberman was expected to be part of his Cabinet, possibly as Homeland Security secretary.

Though some Democrats believe that Lieberman should pay for his perceived transgressions — either by being stripped of his coveted chairmanship, giving him the helm of a lesser panel or booting him from the Democratic caucus (all of which Lieberman has opposed) — others in the party are pushing to take a higher road.

As Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said on November 7 at a press conference: “Joe has done something that I think was improper, wrong, and I’d like — if we weren’t on television, I’d use a stronger word of describing what he did. But Joe votes with me a lot more than a lot of my senators.”

As Lieberman continues to court his colleagues, the only people feeling bad for him, it seems, are Republicans.

“It’s sad for a guy who is such a mensch to constantly be attacked for standing up,” Brooks said. “But he’s got a tough skin, and he’s a survivor.”

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