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Lieberman stands out as party maverick

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What will be most commented on in Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate will be two facets of Connecticut's junior senator: his religion and his blistering indignation at President Clinton's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky episode.

Yet one of Lieberman's qualities will probably receive less attention: the fact that he is among the more conservative members of a party populated largely by liberals. And in his very conservatism, Lieberman's presence on the 2000 ticket may be a sign to an older generation of Democrats that the party has not gone entirely New Age.

Lieberman, a man with considerable experience as majority leader of the Connecticut Senate and as that state's attorney general, defeated liberal and quixotic incumbent U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. from an unusual direction. Weicker was one of the heroes of Watergate and the man who anchored the left wing of the Republican Party in the 1980s. In 1988, Lieberman ran as the more conservative candidate and has, ever since, maintained the reputation of being very much the Democratic Party maverick.

The ratings given to members of Congress by various interest groups often can be deceptive because they give grades based only on those issues deemed important by the lobbies. Yet even with that caveat, Lieberman's voting record is unusual for a New England Democrat. It more nearly resembles that of old-line Southern Democrats, such as South Carolina's Ernest F. Hollings, and younger members of the party's tiny Sunbelt wing, such as John B. Breaux of Louisiana, than it does of Christopher J. Dodd, his Senate colleague from Connecticut. Based on 1999 votes, the National Journal found Lieberman to be the eighth most-conservative Democrat in the 45-member Senate Democratic caucus.

Lieberman is a reliable pro-choice vote and does not make any concessions to bans on the so-called partial birth abortions. He also is very much in the forefront of campaign finance reform, a cause to which liberals give full-throated rhetorical support. Lieberman's interest in military issues, however, sets him apart from Democratic colleagues who harken more to such things as social welfare and Medicare and tax reforms.

Lieberman's principal committee assignment is Armed Services. This might be explained purely in terms of the fact that nuclear subs are built in Groton, Conn., and being on Armed Services has enabled him to stand watch over the fabulously expensive Sea Wolf program. Yet there is more to Lieberman's involvement with defense issues than pork-barrel politics. He is a link to an earlier generation of defense-minded Democrats, such as Henry L. Jackson of Washington, who resolutely refused to cede national defense issues to the Republicans. Hawkish Democrats went out of fashion after the Vietnam War, but Lieberman has been consistent in his preoccupation with military issues. He has fretted over whether the military leadership is prepared intellectually to meet the challenges of high-tech warfare, and he is unapologetic in his support of initiatives such as the national missile defense.

What Lieberman offers politically is that he is a different kind of Democrat. Unlike Clinton, who is a liberal by instinct and a centrist only opportunistically, Lieberman's conservatism is deeper in the fabric of his personal morality. And while his votes accord with the positions taken by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action 75 percent of the time, he clearly is troubled by the vulgarity of so much popular culture and sounds like a Republican when he deplores the decline in both public and private morality. Cynics may see moral ostentation, but the outrage is genuine.

To older Democrats, especially those who have on occasion cast votes for such Republicans as Ronald Reagan because the party of their youth had veered too far left, Lieberman will be a reassuring figure. And for those who deplore the caustic partisanship of politics, the ease with which Lieberman works with Republican colleagues, with whom he enjoys relationships of great fondness, will be a hopeful sign.

Ross Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University