Back on December 17, 2009, Americans were glued to their televisions and computer screens, waiting to see whether the Senate Democrats could muster enough votes to block a Republican health care filibuster. David Letterman reported that night on his CBS “Late Show” that they had closed the deal. “They have 60 votes to pass a health care bill,” he said. “That’s 58 Democrats and the Salahis.”
Things didn’t actually turn out that way, as alert readers may recall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid flew into action the next morning, perhaps sensing that the eccentric White House gate-crashers wouldn’t be much help, and after a day of marathon talks, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska agreed to provide the 60th vote. The filibuster-buster, so to speak. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne put it some days later, Reid had beaten the odds and successfully “united the entire Democratic caucus, from Joe Lieberman to Bernie Sanders.” He was referring to the two independents who flank the Democrats on the left and right and caucus with them, turning 58 Democratic senators into a 60-member bloc.
What can we learn from these events? For one thing, that the boundaries of Democratic opinion in the Senate — and, perhaps, of liberal possibility in today’s America — are demarcated by a pair of white-haired, 68-year-old Jews from New England.
The role of outlier and independent scold is a time-honored one in politics, especially in New England, and even more especially in Judaism. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Senate’s only two independents would turn out to be New England Jews. Still, their position as the boundary markers of the Democratic caucus is worth a deeper look. Here is Lieberman, positioning himself on the Democrats’ right flank. There is Sanders, positioned on the left flank. And there they stand, a couple of flanken, like goal posts on a playing field, tall and unmoving, defining the limits of play.
Well, O.K., Lieberman doesn’t stand so tall. And Sanders slouches. But unmoving, definitely.
A better analogy: There they stand like ushers in synagogue on Saturday morning, handing out the prayer books and helping you find a seat, all the while hocking you about the PLO or the men’s club or something. They park themselves by the exits, watching and shushing, a vital part of the service and yet not part of it at all. They also tend to get pretty cranky. They’re reading from the same book as you are, but they’re not always on the same page.
For Sanders, crankiness is a professional calling card. The Senate’s only avowed socialist, he’s spent four decades railing against corporate greed and the plight of the worker. Blunt of manner, rumpled in appearance and thick of Brooklyn accent, he’s been called many things over the years, but refined isn’t one of them.
But his style, though atypical, plays well in quirky, tiny Vermont, where he settled in 1964. He’s been the state’s biggest vote-getter — mayor of Burlington, House member and senator — for more than a quarter-century. Democrats have periodically tried to recruit him, but he’s always bluntly refused. He did, however, tone down his insults after entering the House in 1991.
Lieberman’s ornery side, by contrast, is usually described as something recent, traceable to his humiliating dismissal by Connecticut Democratic primary voters while seeking a fourth term in 2006. In fact, it’s been there all along, masked by his affable manner. He’s always been a hawkish outlier in the party. Long before he endorsed the Iraq War in 2003, alienating party faithful, he endorsed the 1991 Gulf War, alienating his congressional colleagues. He even served as floor manager for the first President Bush’s war powers resolution, famously walking four miles to Capitol Hill on a Saturday morning and roaming the chamber with a non-Jewish page behind, jotting down yeas and nays.
And there have been subtler signs. In January 1993, when the Senate returned from winter break and opened its new session, it boasted a record 10 Jewish members, including its first two Jewish women. The twin milestones caused a flurry of bemused press and water-cooler chatter, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Wags claimed the august chamber had for the first time acquired a minyan of Jews, the minimum quorum for Jewish prayers. Few noticed that it was a minyan in theory only, since two of the 10 Jews were women — one of them, Dianne Feinstein, with a Christian mother and a Reform conversion — while a third, Lieberman, was an Orthodox Jew. It wouldn’t have worked with him there.
Not that anyone was planning to hold services on the Senate floor. I’m just saying.
In case you haven’t caught it yet, the political symbolism of these two New England independents has a spiritual echo that’s even more intriguing. For as much as they define the spectrum of Democratic ideology, Lieberman and Sanders perfectly encapsulate the arc of modern Jewish belief. One is Orthodox, the other socialist. Between them, the Senate’s 11 Jewish Democratic Party regulars cover the spectrum between: self-identified Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated Jews, some intermarried, most in-married, all outspokenly affirming Jews.
The late Senator Jesse Helms, ultra-conservative Republican of North Carolina, once tried to defeat a Democratic amendment by scheduling a vote on the morning before the first Seder, when Democratic ranks would be decimated. That speaks volumes. It didn’t work, because most scrambled to reschedule their flights at the last minute. That speaks whole libraries.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).