The Fighter vs. the Lover

The Gore-Lieberman feud is a minor political classic, something to read the newspaper for in this so-far-quiet August. The Republicans are enjoying it because it’s Democrats fighting. Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman are enjoying it because everyone’s watching them, which underscores their view that they’re the two most interesting men in the party. And the other Democrats who are thinking of getting in the ring like it because Mr. Gore may bloody Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Lieberman may bruise Mr. Gore but no one’s hurting them.

To recap: Messrs. Gore and Lieberman have been sparring—feinting and jabbing—as they circle each other in the ring.

Mr. Lieberman says Mr. Gore’s populist strategy in the 2000 elections was “ineffective”—smack! Mr. Gore says this is no time to “stop telling the truth” to the American people—pow! Mr. Lieberman says Americans reject “us versus them” rhetoric—take that! Mr. Gore says centrism is “bad politics and bad principle”—there’s more where that came from, buddy!

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Why are the former allies now foes? You know why. Joe Lieberman thinks Joe Lieberman’s a winner and Al Gore’s a loser. He shares the views of most of the leaders and funders of his party: Mr. Gore is damaged goods, a bad campaigner who wasted the precious patrimony of peace and prosperity, a charm-free zone who took a weird turn in his acceptance speech two years ago this week, abandoning centrist sophistication and embracing Huey Long populism. In the debates with George W. Bush, Mr. Gore seemed like a cross between Frankenstein and Carrot Top. Also journalists, always more important to Democrats than Republicans, do not and never will warm to him.

Mr. Lieberman has a point.

Mr. Gore, on the other hand, feels he plucked Lieberman from the Senate gaggle, got him past the vetting of the left, made him a person in history, the first Jewish vice presidential nominee, and on top of it all he brought the ticket 500,000 votes more than the winners (Messrs. Bush and Cheney) got.

Mr. Gore has a point too.

Mr. Lieberman has vowed that he will not run for the Democratic presidential nomination if Mr. Gore does. He has also told Godfrey Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor that he is “meditating and activating” on whether to run. Sounding a lot like Al Gore, he defined activating as “moving around the country meeting with many leaders, speaking out on issues.” He said he will make a final decision after the midterm elections and before the end of the year.

He says he has no opinion on whether Mr. Gore should run. But everyone knows Mr. Gore is running. So what exactly is Mr. Lieberman doing?

He’s having fun and being serious at the same time. He’s keeping the spotlight, he’s investigating Enron and helping to fashion a Homeland Security Department, and he’s demonstrating to party leaders that he isn’t a creampuff, he knows how to be aggressive on the issues. By taking on Mr. Gore, he elevates himself from Beta Man to possible Alpha Man. Good work for a slow summer.

Mr. Lieberman made it as a moderate. He feels the future of the Democratic Party lies in sympathetic centrism. He sees the vast, vote-rich American middle class as the true potential home of the party. And again he has a point. This is how two-term winner Bill Clinton read the playing field, and if Mr. Clinton knew anything it was popular politics. But while centrism may be the future of the Democratic party, it isn’t the future of Al Gore.

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Politics, as they say, is a game of addition. Middle-class appeals expand the party, and unite the country. Populism pierces: Its message is often rousing but inherently divisive. It attempts to divide the electorate between the bad people who think of nothing but themselves, and the good people who seek to help the working class. What of those who seek to help working people through conservative policies? According to left-wing populists, they don’t exist, or don’t really mean it, or are unwitting pawns of economic royalists.

In the 2000 campaign, Mr. Gore figured that he would have to rouse his left-wing base to win. And the way to do that, he judged, was to play to the presumed passions and resentments of the little guy. He can argue now that he was right: He did bring out his base.

Still, when Mr. Gore, whose career had been one of self-proclaimed centrism, went left two years ago, many political observers were surprised, including me. I wondered if perhaps Mr. Gore judged himself to be a rather chilly character, a man who could not approach the electorate with a Clintonesque warmth because . . . he doesn’t have much warmth.

If you don’t have warmth maybe heat is the next best thing. And maybe that’s what Mr. Gore’s turn to populism was all about.

But his populist stance was never a perfect fit. Mr. Gore never made the old rhetoric new. He never made it something alive and pertinent to the moment. He sounded stale, and merely rhetorical. He was like a bright Ivy League student who had gone to a revival of a Clifford Odets play and thought he’d bring the rhetoric home to upset dad. Mr. Gore’s populism seemed cynical, a mere strategy chosen for the maximum gain of the candidate.

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The Gore-Lieberman feud also raises the question of whether, in national politics, it’s better to be a Lover or a Fighter. Lovers seem to voters to be driven by a desire to help and protect. The most successful conservatives (George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan) have been Lovers. They may carry the sterner message, but they put it forward with a certain joy and moral confidence. Fighting conservatives don’t last so long or do so well. (Ask Fox News analyst Newt Gingrich.)

But there’s a downside to Lovers. They can get too soft. A few months ago I asked a Republican senator what President Bush should do next. He said, “Veto something.” I asked, what? He said, “Anything!” Meaning: Loverboy ought to show some muscle, jab someone, show ‘em who’s the man.

With Democrats, too, it’s probably true that Lovers flourish and Fighters don’t, at least long term. Mr. Lieberman seems to see himself as a Lover, embracing the middle class. He’s painting Mr. Gore as a Fighter. And Mr. Gore is helping him. Because he likes the pose of the pugilist. His aggression may be joyless but it’s interesting to watch, and makes its own heat. And it can be intimidating. It’s just not inspiring. Unless you’re the left wing of his party.