'Pitchfork Joe' campaigns for White House

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   June 18, 2002 at 10:46 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- Five months after we pointed it out in UPI Analysis, The Washington Post has come to the same conclusion: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., already running for the presidency in 2004 and running hard.

The Post's piece published Tuesday eerily comes to the same observations and conclusions that we did then. It described Lieberman as "the unabashed aggressor of late" among Democratic senators who are also wanna-be presidential candidates.

On Jan. 9, we observed, "Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is everywhere these days. The widespread belief on Capitol Hill is that he is running again, first to be the unofficial leader of the Democratic Party, and then, in 2004, to change his address to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. -- the White House."

The Post article, by respected staff writer Jim VandeHei, pointed out that "the Connecticut Democrat, known mostly for his sober-minded speeches and self-effacing humor, is revealing a lesser-known side: that of a calculating politician as aggressive and ambitious as any of his contemporaries."

That was exactly our conclusion in UPI Analysis when we pointed out, "Lieberman's quest reflects more than the irresistible force of his well-hidden but always overwhelming driving ambition."

VandeHei also pointed that Lieberman's energetic probe into the Enron energy corporation bankruptcy scandal is playing a major role in his political strategy. The Post writer shrewdly pointed out, "even for a senator with a vice presidential candidacy under his belt, it takes a major national issue to generate interest from a largely indifferent electorate. His investigation into Bush's relationship with Enron officials could provide the publicity bang his advisers seek."

Lieberman has been pursuing this strategy for half a year now. It has yet to pay off big for him, but he has shown tenacity and determination in sticking to it, qualities that he is not popularly associated with.

Back on Jan. 9, we noted Lieberman's Jan. 3 pledge that "he would hold searching, no-holds-barred hearings in the Senate governmental affairs committee on the collapse of the gigantic Enron energy trading corporation, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history."

We also noted that "Lieberman, who rose in the Senate with a quiet, statesmanlike, demeanor as a moderate Democrat, pledged to come out swinging and take no prisoners. He said he would subpoena Enron's top directors and executives and probe deep "to make sure that something like that never happens again."

That language, we noted, "was a remarkable U-turn for Lieberman. He has risen over the decades as a kinder, gentler Democrat, the kind of Democrat that Republicans, even Reaganite ones, love to love. He was one of the leading figures in the Democratic Leadership Council that moved the party back to the center from the left over the past decade and more. His narcotizing debate with Vice President Dick Cheney during the 2000 presidential campaign was more kissing fest than catfight. Yet now he is starting to bang the populist drum and sound like Pitchfork Ben Tillman."

Since then, as VandeHei pointed out, Lieberman has found other issues and made shrewd political alliances. He has joined forces with, of all people, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, President George W. Bush's most formidable Republican challenger for the presidential nomination two years ago to push a U.S. policy to fight global warming far tougher than the one Bush advocates now.

Lieberman is also boldly confronting the president on national broadband policy, an area where the United States is worryingly falling behind other advanced nations in information and communications technology. In May, he took another bold step, as VandeHei pointed out, blasting Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the rich.

It has been political orthodoxy among Democrats as much as Republicans over the past two decades that opposing tax cuts is political suicide, but Lieberman, no fool, to put it mildly, is staking his very considerable ambition that the times, they are a-changin'.

Lieberman has changed his colors and is taking these very considerable political risks because he realizes the political times are changing. The complacent good times of the '80s and '90s are over.

The American future is one of either wading through recession or fighting a long, slow struggle against deadly terrorism, or both. Wall Street is still reeling from the Internet "bubble burst" and the aftermath of the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. The long invincible U.S. economy shed a million jobs lost in 2001 -- the worst year for such news in 20 years. And the assumption of ever-soaring stock indices that fueled the politics of the past 20 years is rapidly vanishing.

In tough times, Democrats have always reverted to their soak-the-rich emotional roots from Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. President Harry S. Truman made his name in the Senate by first exposing railroad corporation abuses and then investigating pork-barrel waste during the World War II industrial build-up. The shrewd Lieberman, who entered politics 30 years ago projecting the image of a longhaired "swinging '60s" young idealist, has been one of the first Democrats on Capitol Hill to pick up on that.

Blasting the tax-cuts, in fact, remains a no-lose proposition for Lieberman. As we pointed out in January, if the cuts fail to stimulate the economy in the long term and get mopped up in the savings of the rich while the middle and working class suffer painful setbacks, Lieberman will look like a hero and cement his new populist credentials.

The idea of Lieberman being a credible presidential candidate in 2004 sounded totally outlandish when we noted his ambition back in January. But as VandeHei succinctly points out in his Post article, that has not held Lieberman back for a second. His policy proposals, public statements and political initiatives are carefully integrated with each other and he is pursuing them with energy, discipline and tenaciousness.

Can he do it? The idea of America electing its first Jewish president -- and an observant Orthodox Jew at that -- at a time of escalating crisis with the Arab world still appears highly unlikely, to say the least. And Lieberman is also that most despised of creatures in the American political zoo over the past 35 years -- a Northeastern liberal. No Northeasterner has won a presidential election in more than 40 years since John F. Kennedy pulled it off in 1960. The only one to win the Democratic presidential nomination since then was Lieberman's catastrophically hapless fellow New Englander Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.

The Conventional Wisdom remains, therefore, unanimous, Lieberman does not have the chance of a snowflake in the Sahara in 2004. And even VandeHei's excellent article on the surprising progress he is making in policy debates is unlikely to change that general perception.

But in a coming UPI Analysis, we will point out that the Connecticut Democrat may have a lot more going for him in political terms in 2004 than he is yet given credit for. And in the meantime, we remind our readers of our January conclusion that "a lot of people have ended their political careers in shocked, humiliating defeat because they underestimated nice, kindly, soft-spoken Joe Lieberman."

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