MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is especially soft-spoken for a presidential candidate. He arrives at Manchester’s Engine Company #7 on a Monday morning with none of the fanfare of the typical presidential campaign nor much of an entourage — just his son, Matt Lieberman, a press aide, and a union supporter. He is quietly attentive as firefighters show him around their state-of-the-art station. Later, when the former vice-presidential candidate and a small group of firefighters gather in the station’s kitchen, Lieberman gently probes them about their readiness for handling an act of terrorism. Later, he shifts his inquiry to Manchester’s economic well-being and the financial health of their individual savings accounts.
Lieberman, who ran for vice-president on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in 2000, is an unlikely White House hopeful. A Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jew, he would be the first member of his faith to run for president. On top of that, his combination of generally liberal domestic views and forceful foreign-policy positions are out of step with his party's mainstream. That his views bear certain similarities to Theodore Roosevelt’s (i.e., walk softly and carry a big stick) underscores his potential for good or ill depending on your core beliefs. Lieberman effortlessly cites TR, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy, and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy among his biggest political influences. A common thread unites them: all stood for the principle that in order for the United States to thrive at home — to bring wealth, health, and prosperity to the working and middle classes — the country needs a strong defense and a muscular, values-based foreign policy. It’s a philosophy that was embraced — perhaps most vigorously of all — by Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson of Washington.
You don’t hear Scoop Jackson’s name all that much anymore; in 1976 he lost to then–Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in the Democratic presidential primary. Oddly enough, you hear it more among Republicans than Democrats. That's because some of his advisers — former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, for instance — are now among the most outspoken and influential hawks in the GOP. But Jackson, who battled corporations on behalf of workers, would not have been comfortable in the party of Trent Lott and George W. Bush. Rather, if he were around today, Jackson would find a soul mate in Joe Lieberman. In fact, the fate of Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign will signal whether someone with Jackson-like hawkish foreign-policy views can still wield power within the Democratic Party. Lieberman says the answer is yes.
When asked about Jackson during an interview with the Phoenix, the presidential hopeful openly expresses his admiration. "[Jackson] was a great supporter of the military, and domestically he was a real fighter for working people, for average, middle-class people — and incidentally, he was a very aggressive protector of the environment at a time when it wasn’t yet fully fashionable," he says. "This combination of values and policies really represents and reflects not only a majority of the American people, that I’m sure of, but a majority of the Democratic Party. That majority doesn’t always come out in primaries, but it often does."
On the issue of how and when America should confront Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Lieberman is not only out in front of the Bush administration, but increasingly at odds with many of his fellow Democrats. (Democratic Boston congressmen Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch, for example, warn against anti-Iraq military action.) Lieberman maintains that an increasing body of facts suggests direct links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization. He points to Jeffrey Goldberg’s most recent New Yorker account of activity in Northern Iraq as providing further evidence of such links. While more proof will emerge, says Lieberman, Saddam Hussein’s actions to date already warrant military action against him on US national-security grounds.
"He’s a ticking time bomb for the US," Lieberman says, sitting in a desk in the last row of the firehouse’s training classroom. "The case is there: he has weapons of mass destruction, hates the United States, has used the weapons against Iraqis and Iranians, and tried to kill President Bush." When asked about increasing Democratic uneasiness with expanding the War on Terror, Lieberman remains undeterred: "I’m going to do everything I can to rally Democratic support for an anti-Saddam move."
Lieberman, after all, has been through this once before. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. A former Connecticut attorney general, Lieberman had only two years’ experience as a US senator at that time. Nonetheless, he knew immediately that Saddam Hussein had to be beaten back. "You can’t let a bully like that overrun a neighboring country," he says. The first president Bush asked Lieberman to act as the Democratic co-sponsor of the Senate resolution authorizing America to use force against Iraq. When the Senate voted, Lieberman was one of only 10 Democrats who cast votes for the Gulf War. (Another was former vice-president Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee.)
This did not mean Lieberman was afraid of criticizing the president. When Bush called for the Iraqi people to rise up against Hussein and then stood idly by when the dictator unleashed his Republican Guards on them, Lieberman made a famous speech taking issue with the way Bush handled the war's denouement. The war, he said, had resulted in less than "final victory." Lieberman now contends he’s prepared to push both the current administration and his fellow Democrats to support further action against Iraq. "I hope there’s not a repetition of what we experienced in ’90 and ’91, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, where unfortunately too many Democrats did not support former president Bush in what I felt very strongly was the correct policy to push back Saddam," he says. "I know it’s controversial, but, to me, if we don’t get him, he’ll get us."
Another former Democratic senator has also competed for Scoop Jackson’s mantle: Al Gore. While Gore moved leftward in the 2000 presidential race, his 1988 and 1992 presidential and vice-presidential efforts sought to capture the center. If Gore runs again, will Lieberman stay in the race? No, says Lieberman. So why is he already making visits to New Hampshire? On this, Lieberman is somewhat coy. "I don’t know, and I don’t believe he knows [what his plans are] at this point," says Lieberman of his former running mate. "So I have to wait and see." But, he adds, pointing to the early series of presidential primaries, he needs to begin making preparations to run right away to keep his options open. "Anybody who wants to run credibly has to decide by the end of this year," he says, "so they can actually begin to do all you need to do to raise money, organize a national campaign, decide to begin to put people on the ground in states like this — an early-primary state — by early next year."