On His Own Again

Using the bounce he still enjoys from the campaign, Sen. Joseph I Lieberman returns to Capitol Hill with newfound influence

March 15, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. Joe Lieberman's office brims with campaign souvenirs - a photograph of the former vice presidential candidate hamming it up on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show (where he sang Frank Sinatra's "My Way"), a snapshot of him basking in the cheers of union workers, a week of "Doonesbury" cartoons celebrating his candidacy.

But good stuff for the glory wall is only the start of what this Democrat from Connecticut hopes to take from last year's unsuccessful Gore-Lieberman campaign. In his sights now: A sustained presence on the national scene.

The senator, who made history as the first Jewish politician to join a national ticket when Al Gore chose him as his running mate, is using the drive of a CEO to try to build what might be called Joe Lieberman Inc.

Long an active member of the Senate, best known for advocating greater moral accountability in public life, Lieberman is trying these days to capitalize on his heightened exposure. He is pushing high-profile legislation. He is starting a political action committee to raise money for Democratic candidates. He is creating a policy group to promote centrist ideas. He is even musing about a presidential bid in 2004.

"I feel as if I came back more informed in a way, more nationally informed," Lieberman said in a recent interview in his Senate office, adding that he hopes to continue the Gore-Lieberman campaign efforts on such issues as education and the environment. "I have this great opportunity now, enriched by the campaign, to come back and continue to fight for all those things. So I feel very lucky."

But it is an awkward moment for Lieberman. He is more famous because of Gore, but he isn't using that stature just to embrace the same agenda Gore did. Before the campaign, Lieberman was known as socially conservative - supporting school vouchers, accusing Hollywood of vulgarity and violence and criticizing affirmative action. He muted parts of that message as Gore's vice presidential candidate. Now, tilting back to his ideological roots, Lieberman is trumpeting some of the same moderate ideas the Gore campaign underplayed.

Campaign `rhetoric'

He is distancing himself from the Gore battle cry about the little man vs. the wealthy elite, a cry that Democratic critics say saddled the campaign with an outdated message and ultimately did it harm among swing voters.

"I've never been one for class warfare," Lieberman now concedes. "Some of the rhetoric in the campaign - `the people vs. the powerful' - in general terms is not the approach that I'm interested in or that I feel comfortable with."

The senator has said he would consider running with Gore again - and has vowed not to seek the Democratic presidential nomination out of respect if Gore runs in 2004 - but he has made no outright commitment to another possible Gore-Lieberman ticket. Neither, of course, has Gore.

On the campaign trail, Lieberman's past breaks with his party sometimes caught up with him. On affirmative action, for example, the senator had said in a 1995 Senate floor speech, "Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended."

He said later that year, "You can't defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed to individual opportunity, which is what America is all about."

But at the Democratic convention, Lieberman told black lawmakers: "I have supported affirmative action. I do support affirmative action. And I will support affirmative action."

Lieberman has pointed out that he has voted for measures in favor of affirmative action and wants only to modify the practice, not end it. But some senators say they think Lieberman was not always at ease with certain Gore campaign language. Back in the Senate, they say, he can be truer to himself.

The Gore campaign "made things somewhat uncomfortable for him," said his longtime friend, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency last year. "I think he took a short-term setback because of the fact that he had to modify some of his positions. But he's fully recovered now."

Up on the Hill

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who had developed a reputation as the "conscience of the Senate," is sensitive to criticism that he sold out his principles on the trail. He seems so aware of cynicism about his insistence on running two simultaneous campaigns last year - one with Gore, and a Senate re-election bid in case he and Gore lost - that in the interview last week, he defended his re-election without even being asked about it.

"I was not at a point in my career where I was tired of the Senate or frustrated by the Senate - I find it just daily a place of interest and substance," he said. "I was very grateful that my constituents in Connecticut voted for me twice last year. Legally."

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