Can a mensch be president of the United States?

Joe Lieberman, the senator who sometimes sounds like a worrywart uncle, wants to find out.

The pundits reacted to Lieberman's campaign kickoff yesterday by noting that he's indeed a different kind of Democrat: Hawkish. Centrist (even conservative on some issues). Moralistic. And, of course, Jewish.

"I'm not running on my faith, but my faith is at the center of who I am and I'm not going to conceal that," the Connecticut Democrat said.

We suspect that issue may be overblown, based on the lack of a fuss over Lieberman's Orthodox beliefs during the 2000 campaign (even though there will be the inevitable "Will he have a White House Christmas tree?" questions).

More important, perhaps, is whether his low-key, hand-wringing, can't-we-all-reason-together tone can excite voters. He's very witty; a gripping speaker he is not.

Lieberman is a decent guy, but sometimes too decent to take the necessary partisan shots. Remember his yawn-inducing performance in the debate against Dick Cheney? You don't get to be president without throwing some punches. Yet he ducked yesterday when asked how he differs from his Democratic rivals.

And will normally liberal Democratic primary voters go for someone who strongly backs Bush on invading Iraq, who's flirted with school vouchers, who's teamed up with Bill Bennett in scolding the entertainment industry? Unless Kerry, Gephardt etc. split the liberal vote, Lieberman could have a tough time getting what the pros call "traction."

In fact, Lieberman's more moderate appeal might make him a stronger general election candidate -- if he could make it to the November finals.

On paper, Lieberman is the front-runner in the polls, if only because of his high '00 profile. He's strong on national security issues. He'll be able to raise lots of money. And he should naturally inherit some Gore supporters. In fact, Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager, told CNN that Lieberman was primarily responsible for the ticket's near-win in Florida and should have substantial black support.

But to win a presidential nomination, you've got to have a message that resonates. You've got to show voters that you're hungry for the challenge. Lieberman, the man who denounced his old friend Bill Clinton on the Senate floor in 1998, has shown he can rise to the occasion. He also showed the value of loyalty by refusing to wiggle out of his pledge to Gore. He was, in short, a mensch. It remains to be seen whether he's also the kind of gut fighter who can win presidential primaries.

Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times hears echoes of Clinton:

"In a brief speech that mixed sharp challenges to Bush with promises of bipartisanship, Lieberman -- the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee -- reprised themes and phrases associated with former President Clinton. From his 'different kind of Democrat' pledge to his embrace of families who 'work hard and play by the rules,' Lieberman echoed Clinton's 1992 campaign language and promised to advance centrist views on issues from education to foreign policy.

"Indeed, Lieberman immediately spotlighted ideas guaranteed to provoke conflict with important Democratic constituencies -- endorsing Bush's push toward war in Iraq, reaffirming his support for limited experiments with private school vouchers and renewing his criticism of the entertainment industry 'for peddling sex and violence to our children.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"As a former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council -- the centrist group that helped launch Clinton's national career -- he's also a favorite of many Democratic moderates. On policy, Lieberman largely follows the 'New Democrat' agenda that Clinton and Gore advanced -- though on some issues, such as his openness to experiments with school vouchers, Lieberman comes out to their right."

http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-joe14jan14,0,2599522.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

Adam Nagourney of the New York Times assesses Lieberman's chances from the right:

"Mr. Lieberman is more conservative than his likely competitors. Some Democrats said that his ideology should make it easy for him to distinguish himself from his opponents and make him a particularly strong candidate to run against Mr. Bush in a general election. But it could make for some rough going for Mr. Lieberman in the primaries, since Democratic primary voters are typically more liberal than the electorate as a whole.

"Some of the differences between Mr. Lieberman and his opponents were on display today. He was fulsome in his praise of Mr. Bush's policy toward Iraq but argued that the president had not been firm enough in his dealings with Korea. Like the other Democrats in the race, Mr. Lieberman was critical of Mr. Bush's tax-cut plan, but he said he was intrigued by Mr. Bush's call to eliminate the dividend tax, even though it 'doesn't do anything to help get us out of the rut our economy is in today.'

"Mr. Lieberman also acknowledged the friction he has created among Democrats in the entertainment world with his crusade against what he described as excessive sex and violence in Hollywood."

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/14/politics/campaigns/14LIEB.html

Dan Balz of The Washington Post also sees a Democrat with a difference:

"After the last campaign, Lieberman got into a public spat with Gore, saying it was a mistake for the Democrats to campaign on the theme 'the people versus the powerful.' His announcement today appeared designed in part to show that while he would embrace many of the same positions he and Gore advocated in 2000, he would do it in a different style.

"His quarrels with some of his party's liberal constituencies could put him at a disadvantage in the nomination battle. His crusade against media sex and violence aimed at children has put him at odds with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. His generally pro-business economic views and his support for controversial ideas, such as experiments with school vouchers, also may put him at odds with many Democratic primary voters.

"Lieberman will face questions about the implications for the country of having its first Jewish president, from how it might affect relations with Israel to whether his observance of the Sabbath would interfere with presidential duties to the question of whether a Lieberman White House would have a Christmas tree."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A51842-2003Jan13.html

Noam Scheiber examines the mensch debate in the Washington Monthly:

"On the one hand, he is a politician of real substance, that rare high-profile Democrat who has serious thoughts about foreign policy--who, for instance, understands why the use of force might be a legitimate response to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iraq, but hopelessly counter-productive in North Korea. He has courageously dissented from the party's interest-group-imposed orthodoxy on issues like trade and education. And his reputation for moral clarity served the nation well at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, when he publicly condemned Clinton's behavior while balancing it with an argument that the president hadn't committed an impeachable offense.

"On the other hand, Lieberman is so dedicated to preserving his good-guy credentials that, as with the pledge, he invariably boxes himself in with traps of his own making. He relished his role as head of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, particularly in the aftermath of the Enron scandal, which offered all sorts of juicy opportunities for congressional Democrats to investigate the Bush administration.

"But while Lieberman didn't hesitate to use his chairmanship to raise his profile on Enron--for example, by giving a major speech about the decline of corporate ethics--he balked when it came time to do the partisan dirty work that would have put the administration on the defensive. It took Lieberman more than three months from the time he announced his committee's Enron investigation to finally hand the administration a subpoena.

"Like all politicians, Lieberman is well aware that to succeed politically you must occasionally throw an elbow--something no one would begrudge him since it's how the game is played. The difference between him and other politicians is that Lieberman's chief political asset is being the guy who never throws an elbow."

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0301.scheiber.html

Slate's William Saletan depicts the candidate as G.I. Joe:

"The 2004 presidential election is like a football game in a stiff wind. Every other Democrat -- Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry -- wants the wind in the first quarter. They're running to the left in the primaries, postponing the question of how, if they win the nomination, they'll get back to the center in a fourth-quarter showdown with President Bush.

"Lieberman is running the other way, into the wind. In the party of peace, secularism, and civil liberties, he's the candidate of God, family values, and military muscle. If he makes it to the fourth quarter against Bush, he'll have the wind at his back. The risk is that he'll be blown out of the game before he gets there.

"Kerry has a war record. Edwards and Gephardt support Bush's hard line against Iraq. But none of them can match Lieberman's hawkish record."

http://slate.msn.com/id/2076679/

Lieberman even speaks of stamping out "evil," like a certain president.

ABC's Note wonders whether Joe will stick to his ideological guns: "Lieberman's announcement is of course historic, because of his 2000 veep candidacy as a Jewish American, and because he is currently the frontrunner in most national polls -- although that's mostly due to residual name ID from 2000. He is not leading in any key early state polling.

"Strip away his rise to national prominence through being picked by Al Gore; his religion; and his Northeast geographical base and ask yourself, will Lieberman -- in setting the tone of his campaign beginning today, and going forward under attacks from his Democratic opponents and press scrutiny -- run for his party's nomination with a Clinton-like call for his party to move to the center?

"Or is he going to try to soft-pedal some of his past, more conservative positions in order to appeal to the left interests who still (despite all of Al From's hard work) dominate the nominating process?"

http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/DailyNews/TheNote.html

OpinionJournal's Peggy Noonan sees a man taken with himself:

"Joe Lieberman gives off a kind of canny happiness. He's a happy guy, and shrewd too. He thinks he'd be a good president because he's a good guy. It's not about putting forward a philosophy or advancing an agenda, it's about Joe is a good man and your president should be a good man. As well he should. You can't go for the presidency unless you have a solid, steely ego, but you wonder if President Lieberman's ego would spill over and create a private pool in which he swims laps in his own private world. Would the historical meaning of a Lieberman presidency be: Am I fabulous or what?

"John Kerry brings the weight of experience and knowledge. Almost every member of his freshman Senate class has run for president, a fact he mentions. He wears his experience as if it were not a suit or a shield but a kind of gravity that hovers around his head, forcing his face and shoulders down. He brings his gravity with him; it changes the atmosphere around him. You imagine that in the balloon drop the balloons would come down fast and hard and obscure him at the podium.

"John Edwards doesn't bring gravity. He seems light, smooth and amiable. He has no crags. He seems untouched by life, as a bright boomer lawyer would. But he hasn't been untouched; he's known tragedy, the death in a car accident of his teenage son. And yet he has the smooth, unruffled exterior and the bright eyes. In the upcoming primary season, when he sits on the set with Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw, we'll watch and wonder: Which one's the anchorman? And we'll think: Oh, it's Tom, or Peter, it's the older guy with the gravitas."

http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110002891

Is Bush finally feeling the pull of political gravity? Check out this USA Today report:

President Bush's job approval rating has dropped below 60% for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows, amid rising concern about a sluggish economy and the prospect of conflict with Iraq and North Korea.

"The drop in Bush's rating, to 58%, comes at a critical point in his presidency. He is nearing the midpoint of his term and poised to order an invasion of Iraq. Leading Democrats are deciding whether to seek the nomination against him in 2004, a judgment based in part on how vulnerable he seems.

"The sense that his standing is beginning to erode could have a more immediate effect, making it more difficult for him to win victories in Congress on everything from judicial nominations to tax cuts, including his new 10-year, $674 billion economic package."

http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/2003-01-13-bush-poll_x.htm

Except that Bush just helped the GOP win control of both houses.

National Review has some advice for the post-Lott Republican Party:

"An unfortunate side effect of Lott's gaffe has been a revival of liberalism's claim to moral superiority. Liberals would like to set themselves up as the arbiters of racial morality, deciding which conservatives are respectable or otherwise on the basis of their agreement with liberal shibboleths on race. Already there have been attempts to smear Lott's successor, Bill Frist, and such other conservative politicians as Sen. Jeff Sessions.

"But conservatives need no moral instruction on the evil of fomenting racial division from the political allies of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson -- from people who accuse President Bush of savoring hate crimes, from politicians who make false charges that Republicans are trying to keep blacks from being able to vote.

"Both Clintons went before the cameras to say that the Republicans were upset with Lott only for spilling the beans about their racism. The NAACP last year gave a grade of F to every Republican senator, even Lincoln Chafee. Those who would prefer to believe that all the Republicans are racist will draw that conclusion. But others will reason that the civil-rights group is liberal, and an adjunct of the Democratic party.

"Most people understand that disagreement with Kweisi Mfume is not evidence of racism, and Republicans who are falsely charged with it for taking a conservative position need only respond that they will not capitulate to liberal attempts to stifle debate. The Republican party and the conservative cause may have suffered some damage because of Lott's gaffe, but that damage will be lasting only if Republicans act as though they are guilty of the Clintons' charges. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Nor will Republicans solve their political problems by spending taxpayer money on the cities, supporting racial preferences, or even promoting school choice. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. If Republicans want to win votes among blacks, they should start campaigning among them. They need to fight Democrats for black voters as they do for other voters. But they cannot do so if they spend the next two years apologizing for Trent Lott."

http://nationalreview.com/27jan03/editorial012703c.asp

Dan Kennedy says Steve Case is getting something of a bum rap:

"Steve Case's epitaph is that bamboozling Time Warner -- the largest media company in the world -- was an unsufficient qualification for running it. Case quit as chairman of AOL Time Warner last night because the company's stock price has tanked since Case's AOL acquired Time Warner two years ago.

"But as James Surowiecki observed in the New Yorker a few months ago .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. Case actually did spectacularly well by his shareholders -- that is, the folks who held hyperinflated AOL stock before the merger. AOL Time Warner's stock at this moment is $14.88, which is a lot lower than the $56 or so that it commanded at the time of the merger. But if Case hadn't gone out and bought a real company with his pile of AOL funny money, his crappy and outmoded online service would probably be trading for less than $5 right now."

http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp

Finally, John Ellis doesn't think much of Sony's choice of NBC president Andrew Lack:

"Howard Stringer conducted a 'global search' for a top music industry executive to replace the loathsome Tommy Mottola at Sony Records .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. and found his friend Andy Lack, who didn't like his job at NBC because his boss, Bob Wright, hated him. Mr. Lack has no music industry experience and seems ill-suited to the task.

"You would think that the business press would be howling at this brazen act of corporate cronyism, but not really. Howard Stringer, after all, is a ranking member of the major media mafia. The New York Times actually refers to Howard Stringer as SIR Howard Stringer. Not once, but repeatedly, in an odd bit of lackey journalism. Lack is dressed up as a 'turnaround' specialist. And Jeff Zucker, the NBC executive who gains the most with Lack's departure, is given a big wet kiss for good measure.

"Everybody's happy. Call it (crony) journalism."

http://www.johnellis.blogspot.com/