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"If we will not try Zacarias Moussaoui before a military tribunal, who will we try in a military tribunal?" Lieberman whined.

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., on "Fox News Sunday," Dec. 16, 2001. Ken Cedeno

President Lieberman

by Chuck 45

DECEMBER 21, 2001. If there was a silver lining to the judicial coup that snatched the White House from Al Gore's overeager hands, it was not having to hear Joe Lieberman's adenoidal whine on prime time. Unfortunately, the Connecticut Senator and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate is back with a vengeance. These days his whine, urgently ululating with impeccably timed opportunism, is so potent that you can hear it even reading the Congressional record.

At last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Bush military tribunals plan, Lieberman made Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a certified hawk, look like a dove and sound like a mute lamb. He and Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II were doing their best to assuage the civil liberties misgivings of some Committee Democrats when Lieberman suddenly outflanked them from the right.

His beef: the Administration's decision to indict accused terrorist Zacarias Massaoui in federal court, a decision most civil libertarians welcomed, seeing it as an encouraging sign that military tribunals might be used gingerly. "If we will not try Zacarias Moussaoui before a military tribunal, who will we try in a military tribunal?" Lieberman whined.

"I fear that the decision to try him in the federal district courts of the United States — with all the rights of evidence, and rules of evidence, and rights of due process — may let this big fish get away. The other 19 criminals who carried out these acts are dead," said Lieberman, throwing any silly presumption of innocence to the winds. Wolfowitz was speechless. Haynes finally managed to respond: "This is an illustration on how carefully the President plans to employ this tool he has created."

This line, straight from the Pentagon's mollifying Ted Kennedy manual, must have further whetted Lieberman's apparently insatiable appetite for scoring conservative points on the cheap. On Sunday, he was on Fox News, criticizing the Administration and practically asking for Moussaoui's hide. What Moussaoui is accused of is "not a crime. It's an act of war," he said. "He is a war criminalä He is as close to Osama bin Laden as we have in custody in this country." And then the punch line: "If he [Moussaoui] is not a candidate for a military tribunal, who is?"

This is the not the first time, since 9/11 that Lieberman has ridden roughshod over constitutional freedoms. In October, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative watchdog group that Lieberman founded in 1995 with vice-presidential spouse and conservative ideologue Lynne Cheney, issued a report documenting 117 instances of "anti-Americanism" on campus and naming names. Forty professors were singled out as "short on patriotism," among them the president of Wesleyan University, who had the gall to suggest in an open letter that "disparities and injustices" in the United States and the world could lead to hatred and violence.

lynne cheneyThe report, pompously entitled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America," denounces "colleges and university faculty" as "the weak link in America's response" to 9/11 and warns that "when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give comfort to its adversaries." Mrs. Cheney is repeatedly quoted in the report, which was written by two of her close associates. Many on campus see the report as a not-so-veiled blacklist and a crude attempt to muffle democratic debate. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni claims to be the largest source of support for higher education, with $3.4 billion contributed to colleges and universities last year.

Lieberman's on a mean roll. He recently jumped ship and sided with Bush on the corporate welfare boondoggle otherwise known as the Bush economic stimulus package. The bill, long on tax cuts for the richest corporations and short on aid to the unemployed, was officially buried yesterday by Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (D. South Dakota).

Lieberman has not suffered a sudden transformation. A more or less observing Orthodox Jew, he says in public that religion is good for America, and clearly calculates it's even better for vote-hungry politicians.

During last year's presidential campaign, Lieberman, an ardent, long-time supporter of federal funding for "faith-based charities," milked his Orthodox Jewishness for all it was worth, becoming the darling of evangelical Christians nationwide. Not even a stern rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League put a dent on his incessant God chatter (ADL criticized him for suggesting "that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person, an affront to many highly ethical citizens.")

In July, he told the Democratic Leadership Council convention, the center-right outfit that launched Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and which he chaired for years, that the Democratic Party "must earn back the people's trust on matters of values and culture and faith." Lieberman "knows his party's religion deficit cost it the White House last year," The Wall Street Journal approvingly editorialized on July 25.

A masterful political tactician, Lieberman supports school vouchers and social security privatization, but has also sold himself successfully to liberal Connecticut voters as an environmentalist and a champion of consumer rights. He's managed to square the circle, score the trifecta, have his cake and eat it too: he's a pollster's dreamboat — a social conservative whose quality-of-life concerns appeal to liberal suburban voters.

By carefully calibrating what he says, what he does, and how he votes, Lieberman has managed to support gun control and his state's gun industry, join Bill Bennett in a moral crusade against rap lyricists and other evildoers, curry favor with both unions and insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and vote against federal funding for abortion and in favor of parent notification — and still be considered a moderate liberal. Behind the scenes, as an influential member and former chair of the DLC, he has relentlessly pushed the Democratic Party to the right, where it can compete with the Republicans for the juicy cache of conservative voters.

Lieberman's tactical compass has not failed him so far. But in the past, he did not have the high profile his vice-presidential candidacy has given him. His fancy footwork between God and the Devil, so to speak, was little known beyond the Beltway and an increasingly skeptical media in his home state. With the country swept by fear-induced patriotism and Bush's approval ratings in the 80's, Lieberman's compass may be telling him that a little ideological shrillness now, paired with an increasingly naked support of corporate greed, might translate into Bible-belt votes and big bucks in 2004 if he decides to run for President.

Is Lieberman overreaching this time? It all depends on Osama, Al Qaeda and the like. If they're not decisively wiped out in the near future, and the country enters the Ike and Mamie twilight zone of a permanent "war against terrorism," expect Lieberman to get bolder, and more shameless, in his quest to snatch the conservative vote from the Republicans and further sweet-talk the Democratic Party into the right.

Related links:

For the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Their report is still posted, but they have taken out the names named.

For the Democratic Leadership Council.

For more on the report, see Academic freedom under attack since 9/11 in The Seattle Times, Dec. 6, 2001.

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