Joe's jab at pal Al a stunner

August 02, 2002|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Sen. Joe Lieberman created a bit of a stir at the Democratic Leadership Council meeting this week by taking issue with the language used in the 2000 election by ticket-mate Al Gore, who criticized Republican coziness with corporate America.

Mr. Gore had said in his nomination acceptance speech and during the campaign that "we're for the people, they're for the powerful," words that Mr. Lieberman said didn't square with the DLC philosophy of making an ally of big business, not an enemy.

Mr. Lieberman went beyond that, suggesting that in a very close election in which a number of factors could have cost their ticket the election, Mr. Gore's language "was probably one of them."

Beating up on business, Mr. Lieberman said, may have alienated middle-class voters, many of whom were investors in the stock market.

Just why he would publicly take Mr. Gore to task in this way was a surprise and a puzzle, inasmuch as Mr. Lieberman is so committed to the 2000 presidential nominee that, in spite of his own White House ambitions, he has pledged not to seek the Democratic nomination himself if Mr. Gore decides to run again.

The most logical explanation may be that Mr. Lieberman believes that unless Mr. Gore abandons what Mr. Lieberman has called "economic populist" rhetoric, not only Mr. Gore but the whole Democratic Party could suffer the same disappointment of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman ticket.

It has become an article of faith among DLC members that now that more than half of all middle-income voters are investors in the stock market, they are turned off by old populist themes that cast politics in poor-vs.-rich terms and position Democrats always as defenders of the downtrodden.

A recent Gore speech in Washington apparently sounded to Mr. Lieberman like a harking back to such themes, leading him to say they were not a "logical continuation" of the former vice president's commitment to pro-business, pro-growth ideas that are at the core of the DLC, which Mr. Lieberman once chaired.

At the DLC conference here, Democratic pollster Mark Penn presented a study that argued that Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996 in part because he had "ended the use of class-warfare rhetoric." But in Mr. Gore's 2000 campaign, Mr. Penn said, "key centrist issues took a back seat to populism," losing the bulk of middle-class, suburban, white males. "Speaking just to downscale, manufacturing, non-college-educated voters and FDR voters is in the past," Mr. Penn said.

In any event, it was most unusual to hear a former vice presidential nominee criticizing the man who hand-picked him to join the ticket. Most running mates, out of gratitude if nothing else, are thereafter joined at the hip with their political benefactors. If there is any criticism of a ticket-mate, it is usually the vice presidential nominee who draws the complaints for his campaign performance. The history of the last half-century is replete with examples.

The senior President Bush, after leaving office, wrote in a memoir that he had made a mistake in picking Dan Quayle, the target of repeated ridicule as candidate and vice president.

Other running mates often have borne the brunt of criticism as drags on their ticket for one reason or another. Richard Nixon on the Eisenhower ticket in 1952 and 1956, Spiro Agnew on the Nixon ticket in 1968 and 1972 and Bob Dole on the Ford ticket in 1976 all were branded "hatchet men" for their negative campaigning.

On the Democratic side, Geraldine Ferraro on the Mondale ticket in 1984 drew fire over the business associations of her husband. In that case, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was such a lost cause against Ronald Reagan that nobody blamed her for losing the election.

Mr. Lieberman may think he is doing Mr. Gore a favor by reminding him to get back on the rhetorical track that won for Clinton-Gore in 1992 and 1996. But in the customary order of things, a No. 2 man saying the No. 1 may have let the ticket down might be a first.

Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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