What Joe Wrought

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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Senator Joe Lieberman’s departure from the presidential contest was the right thing to do, given his inability to gain ground with the voters. But it leaves undone some of the big tasks that Lieberman took on when he joined the race. For his campaign was more than just a run for office. It was a quest to challenge some basic assumptions in our political system. With his withdrawal, the questions he sought to raise remain unanswered.

Lieberman’s most important challenge was to our party primary system. By putting the nominating process in the hands of the parties’ most passionate loyalists, the system forces candidates to aim for the fringes and arguably contributes to our growing polarization. Lieberman challenged Democrats to look past their partisan passions and choose a centrist who could unite Americans in the fall. In effect, Lieberman was asking Democrats to choose a candidate they didn’t agree with because it would be better for the country. Was the mission hopeless, or did he fail for other reasons?

Lieberman’s other big challenge was his bid to become the first Jewish president in a nation whose citizens are overwhelmingly Christian. A generation ago, a Jewish president seemed all but inconceivable. Today, with nearly every other barrier in society broken down — including Lieberman’s own appearance on the 2000 Democratic ticket — it seemed the time was ripe to topple the last barrier. Lieberman and his backers asserted that America was ready. Some even suggest that to say otherwise is to surrender to bigotry. But was it ready? We still don’t know. Surveys show that no more than 10% or so would refuse to vote for a Jew for president, or at least would admit feeling that way to pollsters. How many of them voted in Democratic primaries? How many others looked at the candidates, weighed the electability factor and opted for a contender who didn’t carry a handicap walking in the room?

To be sure, Lieberman made more than his share of missteps. His long delay in entering, characteristically insisting that ethics required he wait for Al Gore to act, put him at a disadvantage in organizing and fundraising. His folksy demeanor, so essential in backroom Senate negotiating, put him at a disadvantage on the campaign trail, where he was unable to show the fire voters looked for.

Lieberman also may have misjudged his fellow Jews. His backers assumed that ethnic loyalty would lead Jewish voters to put aside their opinions on the issues and to vote “as Jews” rather than as liberals, populists, doves or whatever else they might be. It was an odd assumption for a candidate who insisted from day one that he was running not “as a Jew” but as an American. His fellow Jews proved no more willing than he was to reduce themselves to a label.

In their disappointment, some Lieberman loyalists now complain that the Jewish community failed a test of courage. They suggest that many Jews shied away from the candidate because they feared putting a Jew in the White House would stir antisemitism. That, they say, is cowardice. But is it? Extremists around the world have lately raised complaints of “Jewish control” in Washington to a fever pitch, based on the visibility of a handful of midlevel administration figures. Imagine if they could say it about the commander in chief.

In a world of terrifying new dangers, who’s to say where prudence becomes cowardice?

Coming into February 2004, all these questions remain unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. We are all in the dark, and people of good will come down on all sides.

But we are closer to knowing some important truths about our nation and ourselves because Joe Lieberman had the courage to put himself on the line.

It should not be forgotten that Lieberman was able to present himself as a credible candidate in the first place precisely because he has established himself over the years as an essential figure on the national stage. He remains that and more.

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