Thursday, May 29th, 2008
This week’s Jewish Week asked whether Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and top John McCain supporter, would keep his promise to speak at pastor John Hagee’s Christian Zionist summit in July, now that the minister’s endorsement has been rejected by McCain.
It didn’t take long to get an answer: on Wednesday, Lieberman said he had no plans to reverse his decision. Here’s his statement in full:
“I believe that Pastor Hagee has made comments that are deeply unacceptable and hurtful. I also believe that a person should be judged on the entire span of his or her life’s works. Pastor Hagee has devoted much of his life to fighting anti-Semitism and building bridges between Christians and Jews. The organization that he has helped build, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), is a vital force in supporting the war against terrorism and defending our ally, Israel. I will go to the CUFI Summit in July and speak to the people who have come to Washington from all over our country to express their support of America and Israel, based on our shared eternal values and our shared contemporary challenges in the war against terrorism. At that conference, I will also make it clear that it is imperative that our language is always respectful and tolerant of all of our fellow citizen.”
Why is Lieberman sticking with Hagee when McCain, his choice for president, has rejected the televangelist?
Several political activists close to Lieberman say the answer is simple: whatever his reservations about Hagee’s theology, the independent senator and only Orthodox Jewish in the Senate believes that in a world where Israel seems increasingly isolated, the friendship of a man who commands a religious audience of over 100 million every week can’t be spurned.
Liberal groups are making hay out of Lieberman’s decision to speak at the conference, but as the Jewish Week reported this week, Lieberman’s decision doesn’t seem to conflict with the views of most American Jewish leaders, who are willing to overlook Hagee’s writings and sermons because of his support for the Jewish state.
Lieberman’s decision also reflects a politician who, having survived his own party’s rejection after he lost a Democratic primary in 2006, doesn’t like to be pushed around, Capitol Hill observers say.
For some Democrats, Lieberman’s decision is a welcome one.
One way they hope to minimize his impact on the presidential election and his appeal as a former Democrat who now believes the presumptive Republican nominee is better on terrorism and national security is to portray him as someone who is in synch with the Republicans on a whole range of issues.
How better to do that than to point to his continued association with the controversial televangelist?
What remains unclear is how Lieberman’s Hagee connection will play with the Jewish voters he is expected to target on behalf of McCain, especially in Florida.
The conventional political wisdom is that the influence of the Christian right is a primary reason why Jews tend to stick close to the Democratic Party on election day.
The Democrats will do their best to keep attention focused on Hagee’s controversial statements about the Holocaust and his apocalyptic writings; McCain may have thrown Hagee overboard, but Lieberman’s continued connection to the pastor and his appearance at this summer’s CUFI conference will help them keep the issue alive.
That, they hope, will help keep a strong majority of Jewish voters in the Democratic fold.
But the Republicans are already hard at work exploiting anxieties about Sen. Barack Obama’s pro-Israel commitment; for the swing Jewish voters they are targeting, Joe Lieberman’s status as a Jewish icon and a top defender of Israel may trump traditional concerns about the religious right.
As more and more analysts are saying, the presidential election could once again hinge on Florida – a state where Joe Lieberman’s stature among Jewish voters may not be diminished by his continued Hagee connection.