WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Joseph Lieberman came out swinging left on Monday, invoking the name of liberal icon Paul Wellstone as he told a conference here that he would work to pass a bill mandating spousal benefits for domestic partners of gay federal employees.
The Connecticut senator’s remarks stood in stark contrast to a speech he made the previous night at another conference, where he took a right-leaning stand on the internationally sponsored “road map” for Middle East peace.
The two Jewish conferences brought more than 5,000 people to the capital last weekend, and Lieberman was not alone in seizing the political moment. Four of the nine Democratic contenders for president appeared at one or both of the parleys.
“We need to finish the work that Paul Wellstone started,” Lieberman told a conference sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, referring to domestic partnership legislation covering federal employees that was introduced in the last Congress by the Minnesota senator, who died last fall in a plane crash. “If it doesn’t get done, I intend to introduce and sign it as president of the United States.”
Underscoring his liberal bona fides to a group that many in the Jewish communal world jokingly call “the left wing of the Democratic Party,” Lieberman voiced support for affirmative action and opposition to the recently passed Senate ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, and also jabbed at the White House. “When the Bush administration tells us they are compassionate conservatives, we can only say they are conservative with their compassion,” he told the crowd of about 500 in an ornate, high-ceilinged room in the Cannon House Office Building.
The night before, Lieberman spoke at a private reception at the annual Washington policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying powerhouse. There, foreign-policy hawk Lieberman, sounding like a veritable “GI Joe,” got to the right of President Bush on the road map for Middle East peace being proposed by the Madrid Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
“Make the point that there’s only one entity, one nation — not the European Union, not the United Nations, not Russia — only one nation, the United States of America, that is trusted and can make a peace that is just and fair,” Lieberman said. “Stand by the United States! Don’t yield an inch of control in this process!”
At both conferences, Lieberman reminded the audience that he was Jewish — at the Aipac conference starting his speech by declaring, “Am Yisrael Chai!,” and at the Reform gathering, regretting that he didn’t have the chance to recite shaharit, the morning service, with attendees.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean also spoke at both gatherings, while Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri addressed a reception at the Aipac conference, which brought an overflow crowd to the Washington Hilton, on Sunday. Senator Bob Graham of Florida showed up to hobnob at Aipac’s mammoth banquet Monday.
Their rhetoric, and varying receptions, spoke volumes about the candidates’ appeals to and in the Jewish community. While Lieberman, who in 2000 made history as the first Jew chosen for the national Democratic ticket, retains great popularity in the Jewish community, he by no means has a lock on Jewish support, which divides along ideological lines.
The centrist Lieberman, who was mobbed like a rock star at the Aipac conference — “Go, Joe go!” some in the crowd screamed — drew a polite, respectful reception at the Reform confab, where his approving allusions to the president’s faith-based initiative produced a murmur of disquiet from the crowd.
Attendees quizzed after the speech gave it mixed reviews. Debra Kassoff, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College and a Nader voter in 2000, said she was “disappointed we don’t have a more progressive voice representing the Jewish community in the capital. I don’t like his position on the faith-based initiative, on the separation of church and state. I think it’s damaging.”
On the other hand, Robert Goldberg, a physician from Succasunna, N.J., praised Lieberman as “a moral voice” and said that most of Lieberman’s positions are consistent with his. “The fact that he’s Jewish resonates a lot,” Goldberg said.
The liberal Dean, who was ferried about the Aipac parley by a high-profile supporter, former Aipac president Steven Grossman, drew a good crowd there, even if his anti-war stance was generally unpopular with the hawkish group. He defended it forcefully, telling the Forward that “Iran is more dangerous to Israel than Iraq is…. I don’t think you have to be pro-war or pro-unilateral intervention to be pro-Israel.”
At the Reform gathering, however, Dean’s trademark cheeky, shoot-from-the-hip manner electrified the crowd, which heartily applauded his platform to make health insurance a right for all Americans. “We have had enough in this country of blaming government for what goes wrong,” he said. “Let’s lift up government and not be afraid to be Democrats!”
Leaving the gathering, Dean practically had to beat back a number of young people who eagerly volunteered for his campaign. “It would be an honor to work for you,” gushed one youth, a leader of the Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth.
The traditional Democrat Gephardt drew a relatively sparse crowd at Aipac, but he gamely beat the old-time Democratic drum. The Missourian said he supported Israel for the same reason evinced by fellow Show Me Stater Harry Truman, who gave his nod to the fledgling Jewish state in 1948 because, as Truman said, “It’s the right thing to do.”
Hustled out quickly by his campaign manager, Steve Murphy, Gephardt stopped to pose for several fans who asked him to stand for photos, his smile as bright as his famously blond hair. Asked if he was pleased or disappointed by the reception, the former House minority leader — whom some party strategists give better odds of getting the nomination than Lieberman or Dean — said he would prevail by virtue of his establishment appeal. “I’ve had a long relationship with this organization and the people here,” he responded evenly. “We’ll do well.”