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Smart As a Pistol

Looking to the future, Joe Lieberman considers last November's election debacle, and how hot-button issues like gun control will affect the next.

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There may not be any secret service agents hovering around anymore, but Joe Lieberman stills gets whisked. He hopped out of his car in front of a hotel on West 44th Street; we exchanged pleasantries on the sidewalk, and as we headed inside two obliging bellmen flung doors open and gave him a crisp "Right this way, sir!" The first couldn't help adding, with a doleful smile and a wink, "Maybe next time." I imagine the senator's heard that once or twice before.

This was last Monday. He was in town to give a luncheon speech but had a hole in his schedule and, as his press secretary had put it to me, was looking to fill the hole by doing an interview. Politicians coming to New York, in my experience, tend to fill those holes with small fund-raising events on Park Avenue to which the Fourth Estate is expressly uninvited. But they become more inclined to fill them with interviews when they're thinking of doing something big. Like running for president.

He was quiet, decent, and, by political standards, remarkably egoless. Our conversation began -- and, 45 minutes later, ended -- with his interviewing me, mostly about West Virginia, my place of origin and a state toward which it would be understandable if he's feeling a little less than charitable these days (the state's support of the Bush-Cheney ticket marks the first time it has gone for a nonincumbent Republican since Herbert Hoover in 1928). Not, of course, that he would say anything like that. But what happened last year in the South -- and it pains me to think of West Virginia as the South, but that's another column -- has clearly been on his mind lately. "All of a sudden, there I am in August on the ticket," he says. "And it's a close election. We're behind, actually. And while we're raising a fair amount of money, there's never enough, or there certainly wasn't enough last year. So the campaign, by the time I arrive, makes tactical decisions about where do we need to go to get to 51 percent. As a result, I wasn't sent back to the South very much at all. I went to Arkansas a couple of times, and Tennessee toward the end. And Al didn't go very much, either." They didn't win a single state (except, of course, Florida, but that's another column, too).

We were talking south because, that morning, Lieberman's colleague Zell Miller of Georgia had published an op-ed piece in the Times that was, for a pol, astonishingly frank. Miller counseled his fellow Democrats to make more of an effort to understand southern culture to win national elections -- the cold-water-in-the-face paragraph of Miller's piece warned that, if Bush took the same states in 2004 (after redistricting) that he carried in 2000, he would win not by four electoral votes but by eighteen. He wrote, specifically, that Democrats should shut up about guns. Not necessarily change their position; just be quieter about it (that was the frank part).

Jim Jeffords's defection from the GOP laid bare the nature of contemporary conservatism's much-commented-on problem: It's too southern, too zealous, too irascible. But there is a Democratic yin to that Republican yang. While Democrats have a lock on the urban vote (little-noted trendlet: White northern ethnics, after dalliances with Nixon and especially Reagan, have basically returned to the Democratic Party), and have gained a dead heat in the suburbs, in rural America, they're getting shellacked. And since presidential elections are decided state-by-state in the electoral college -- Gore-Lieberman carried just 21 states (that includes D.C.) -- and since so many states are so rural, Democrats have a problem. And because things in politics and journalism tend to get reduced to their simplest essences, "rural America" and "the South" boil down to "guns." DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, in laying out a new Democratic rural strategy, has even said that the party should ignore the gun issue and "let the individual communities decide their gun laws."

So it occurs to me to ask: Does the Democratic Party platform affirm the right of law-abiding citizens to keep arms, and, if not, should it? "I don't know," Lieberman says. "That's a hell of a question. Yes, it should. It should. I've always said that, throughout my career in Connecticut.

"The constitutional question is at least unresolved," he continued, adding that his goal is to go after "the laws that allow criminals and others who shouldn't have guns to get them."

Later I checked the platform. A phrase inside one sentence speaks of "respect" for "the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and legitimate gun owners." But what Lieberman seems to be open to is something else altogether: an explicit acknowledgment from the Democratic Party that the Second Amendment, which liberals have generally argued was intended to apply only to state-sponsored, "well-regulated militias," applies to individuals. Talk about a platform fight.

Can the party possibly endorse such rhetoric without losing the soccer moms or alienating its urban base? Maybe people will accept it more readily from a Connecticut Jew and a son of Syracuse (McAuliffe) than from a Zell Miller. And it's not as if Lieberman is turning into Charlton Heston; he still backs closing the gun-show loophole, in a bill he's co-sponsoring with John McCain. On the other hand, liberals have spent ten years biting the bullet on free trade and the death penalty and welfare reform. And if Gore had those 3 million liberal-left votes that Ralph Nader took . . .

Lieberman has formed a political-action committee and is traveling around the country doing Democratic fund-raisers (recently, in keeping with our theme, in Florida, Texas, and South Carolina). As for the presidency, he says he wants for now to be a national party spokesman and "to see where we are next year, see if anything more than that is plausible." If Gore decides to run, he says, he'll get out. As for the possibility of Gore-Lieberman II -- the idea that Gore will declare, say, next year that he's running and that he wants Lieberman to run with him, which would set up a rematch long before such things are usually decided -- he says, "I'm gonna leave that to Al. He's working this through."

Whatever his decision on the presidency, it's clear that Lieberman is preoccupied these days by that nearly seamless red L that formed on television screens on Election Night, starting in Montana and the Dakotas, running down to Texas, and turning right toward the Carolinas. Connecticut Yankee, meet Country Joe.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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