The Tyranny of Triangulation: Can Joe Lieberman Lead? (below the Beltway)

Article excerpt

JOHN KERRY AND JOE LIEBERMAN have a lot in common. Both went to Yale. Both are senators from the Northeast. Both are prominent, well-liked members of the Democratic caucus. And both very much want to be president someday.

But when top Republicans--notably Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and House Minority Whip Tom Delay--smeared Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in March for mildly criticizing the war on terrorism, Kerry and Lieberman reacted in very different ways. Kerry stood up at a fundraiser the next day and blasted Daschle's attackers forcefully and by name. "Let me be clear tonight to Senator Lott and to Tom DeLay: One of the lessons that I learned in Vietnam--a war they did not have to endure--and one of the basic vows of commitment that I made to myself, was that if I ever reached a position of responsibility, I would never stop asking questions that make a democracy strong."

Lieberman, for his part, put in a call to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Technically, the op-ed that appeared a few days later could be considered a defense of Daschle. "Those who were `disgusted' by Tom Daschle's sensible questions about the war should recalibrate their outrage meters," Lieberman wrote. But mostly, the piece enumerated Lieberman's own disagreements with Daschle. As in: "I disagree with those of my colleagues, including some Democrats, who are already pressing for a plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan." And: "I disagree with some of my fellow Democrats who complain about what they view as expanding war goals." And: "Some Democrats are challenging the president's proposal to raise spending on our military by $48 billion next year. I disagree.... In fact, I would advocate even more strategic spending on defense."

For Democrats who had welcomed the new Joe--the 2000 vice presidential candidate who emerged as an eloquent critic of the Republican alternatives--this looked a lot like the old Joe. Instead of taking the opportunity to fire a shot across the GOP bow, as Kerry did, Lieberman fired off a few little policy thrusts, positioning himself as the reasonable moderate between the Bush White House and his loyal-but-sadly-misguided "fellow Democrats." Instead of vigorously defending his party and his leader, Lieberman triangulated them. Instead of going for the jugular, Lieberman went for the Journal.

IT WASN'T THE FIRST TIME LIEBERMAN shied away from a partisan battle. Take the environment, a matter on which Lieberman's heart is clearly in the right place. Although his voting record on environmental issues is excellent, he's often seemed unwilling to hit the White House where it hurts. Last year, Lieberman repeatedly threatened to subpoena internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find out why it was rescinding or blocking a host of Clinton-era environmental regulations. But neither the documents nor the subpoenas have since materialized.

Similarly, although environmentalists praise Lieberman for attacking Bush's "feeble" global-warming policy last spring, they haven't forgotten that a few months later the senator--who chairs the Senate's Clean Air, Wetlands, and Climate Change Subcommittee--skipped a key Senate hearing at which Democrats grilled EPA head Christie Whitman on that very issue. (Where was Lieberman? At the White House, working with Bush on the president's faith-based initiative.) And while Lieberman has made a big deal out of his vow last November to filibuster any bill that allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)--a vow he honored during last week's ANWR debate--environmentalists were more impressed when Kerry made the same pledge seven months before Lieberman.

But the best example is Enron. One major reason Democrats have failed to get traction on the issue is that Lieberman has, so far, been unwilling to play hardball as chairman of the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee. …