New Fears Cloud Run By Lieberman: His Jewishness may not play as well as 2000, experts say.
As Sen. Joseph Lieberman begins his run for the Democratic nomination for president, concern surfaced this week that with so many critical world events tied to U.S. policy in the Middle East, 2004 may not be as opportune a time for a breakthrough Jewish candidacy as 2000.
Some Jewish leaders even worried that his candidacy could trigger new anti-Semitism in a nation on edge over the sinking economy, Mideast turmoil, a possible war with Iraq and the specter of new terrorism.
“These are legitimate fears, especially given the increasing problems in the Middle East,” said University of Akron political scientist John Green. “Lieberman’s faith could become an issue and get tied up with other controversies.”
That reaction could be particularly strong in the black community, on college campuses and in the emerging antiwar movement, he said, which has taken on a strong anti-Israel tone in recent weeks (see story on page 26).
“There are crackpots out there, but they are the same crackpots we had in 2000,” said Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union. “And there was no discernable backlash then.”
But the altered world scene and trends in the Middle East could raise new concerns about Lieberman’s Jewishness, Diament acknowledged.
“What’s different is anti-Semitism in the Middle East,” he said. “Americans looking at the region will calculate, how will that impact on Lieberman’s ability to conduct U.S. policy in the region?
“That’s not anti-Semitism among American voters; it’s Americans asking intelligent questions about a candidate’s ability to do the job. And they are questions Lieberman will have to answer.”
In fact, a poll of 1,000 Americans released this week by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that 32 percent expressed concern that a Jewish president might not act in America’s best interests if they conflict with Israel’s. (The survey, titled “Anti-Semitic Beliefs in the United States” and conducted in May 2002, also found that Democrats tend to be more anti-Semitic than Republicans. Twelve percent of Republicans view Jews as caring only about themselves; the figure for Democrats and independents was 20 percent.)
Lieberman’s recent Mideast trip — where he talked about Palestinian suffering and expressed support for Palestinian statehood and also insisted on an end to Palestinian terrorism — was a calculated effort to demonstrate that he will be able to act fairly in the region, despite his strong personal stake in Israel, analysts said.
Lieberman is likely to tap a rich vein of Jewish financial support in his campaign, a necessity if he is to survive in a crowded field. But Jewish support will not be universal, especially in the race for the nomination.
“Lieberman has some major vulnerabilities with Jews,” said Green. “He is more religiously observant than many, and more conservative than most. In the primaries there may be a struggle between group loyalty and ideology in supporting him.”
Orthodox and right-of-center activists worry that Lieberman is already trying too hard to prove his Mideast objectivity.
“There are many in our community who were not happy with his Middle East trip,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive director of the Religious Zionists of America and a former Orthodox Union president. “There is concern that he may try to bend over backwards to show his fairness. And many in our community are enamored of what Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have done in the Middle East and in the war against terrorism.”
The Orthodox community “has great pride in Joe Lieberman,” Ganchrow said. “But the fact that he’s Orthodox won’t mean automatic support. We will watch him, watch all the nuances of the campaign, and keep an open mind.”
Despite concerns from both ends of the Jewish political spectrum, most analysts say the lawmaker, now in his third term, is likely to win overwhelming Jewish support if he survives the primaries and runs in the general election.
Monday’s announcement took place in Stamford, Conn., at the high school Lieberman attended.
He said he would be a “different kind of Democrat,” and promised a campaign of issues and ideas, not rank partisanship.
Lieberman signaled that a key issue would be national security and the fight against terrorism, and said the Bush administration is driven by “extreme ideologues” who complicate that fight.
Experts say Lieberman has a decent chance to win the nomination, but that he still faces major obstacles, starting with big-name competition and a potentially explosive political landscape.
“At this stage in the game he has two priorities: He has to reduce the field and raise money,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “He has to get on some issue and ride it. And since he’s defined as the right-of-center candidate at the moment, national security has to be a top issue for him.”
But Lieberman, the chief Democratic backer of the resolution giving Bush wide authority to pursue the war against Iraq, will walk a difficult line on key security questions. If the war goes well, that could put him ahead of other Democrats who are trying to stake out more dovish positions.
But if the war effort bogs down and generates strong domestic opposition, “Joe will have to quickly distance himself from the president’s policies,” said a top Jewish Democrat. “And that could be awkward, given his recent record.”
Most analysts agree that Lieberman will face a stiff challenge in the Democrat primaries as the party’s center shifts back to the left.
“In my view he doesn’t have much choice but to run as a DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] Democrat on foreign policy, moral values and some domestic issues,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Yes, that will upset some liberals, but in a six- or seven-way race, pure liberals might be stretched thin among the other candidates. We’ll see whether Lieberman can play a clean Clinton.”
Sabato warned that Lieberman, whose political pitch has always been based on morality and integrity, would be held to a high standard on consistency.
“Lieberman has to be careful not to do what he did when picked as vice-president by Gore in 2000,” he said. “That is, he has got to stick to his first principles.”
Already, Republican opposition research teams are pumping out information on Lieberman’s 2000 shifts on issues.
“I would hope that this time Joe Lieberman will steer a straight course, without any of the flip-flops that marked his candidacy in 2001,” said Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn assemblyman, in a statement.
Hikind said “Lieberman the vice-presidential candidate was just a pale replica of the Senator Lieberman” on issues such as vouchers, affirmative action and Jerusalem. He accused Lieberman of being a “political contortionist” during the 2000 campaign.
Still, Green predicted that Lieberman “has a decent shot at the nomination, and at this point, as good a chance as anyone of defeating Bush. But the road is rougher than it was in 2000. All else being equal, I think the nation can accept a Jewish president. Of course, all things are not equal.”
Other analysts say Lieberman already has broken the critical barrier and that fears of an anti-Semitic backlash are wildly exaggerated.
“The biggest reaction in our community is ‘ho-hum,’ ” said a longtime Jewish political activist. “The Lieberman novelty has worn off. I don’t see people scared that this is going to get the anti-Semites to come out of the closet. That kind of thinking is just ghetto mentality.”