By Ron Kampeas
(JTA) – Joe Lieberman is in South Florida doing the shul and seniors circuit for a Clinton, and he’s relishing the gig.
“How does it feel? It feels like I’m home again,” said Lieberman, the former senator from Connecticut, on Oct. 20. “You know, I am a Democrat, and it’s been uncomfortable for me to be off as an Independent.”
Lieberman’s appearances in South Florida on behalf of Hillary Clinton – and a video and robocall soon to be released targeting Jewish voters in the state – is a sign of how the Clinton nomination is reconciling anxious centrist Jews with a party perceived to have veered left during the Obama presidency.
“It’s a clear choice that she’s so much better for the future of the country” than Donald Trump, Lieberman said, noting her Republican rival.
“She also represents somebody who feels that the Democratic Party is at its best when it’s a center-left party and not a left party,” he said. “She holds the hope of restoring the Democratic Party, broadening the coalition and maybe even picking up some moderate Republicans who join the Democratic Party, and it would be a much more constructive, successful party.”
Lieberman spoke to JTA having just completed a grueling day stumping for Clinton on the Jewish circuit in Palm Beach, Miami Dade and Broward Counties.
For Democrats, it’s an effort to push back against inroads that Republicans were making among Florida Jews. Polling shows a tight race in Florida, and both sides are reaching out to Jews.
Jews for Progress, a pro-Clinton super PAC, is including Lieberman’s message on a robocall aimed at 100,000 Jewish homes in the state and a video also aimed at reaching 100,000 Florida Jews through email and social media.
Lieberman made history in 2000 when he became the first Jewish candidate to place on a national party ticket: Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore named him his running mate.
That – and his Orthodoxy – means he scores high name recognition among Jewish voters of a certain age, and that age is prevalent on the circuit he worked Thursday, including the Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach and The Shul, a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Surfside, in Miami Dade County, among other stops.
Lieberman said he encountered skepticism during his rounds, some of it “silly,” some of it substantive. On the substantive side, Lieberman said, was Clinton’s support for the Iran nuclear deal reached last year. It was evident that criticism was harder to deflect, as Lieberman took a lead role in opposing the deal, which traded sanctions relief for a partial rollback in Iran’s nuclear development.
Recounting the arguments he pitched to skeptics, Lieberman cast Clinton as the “bad cop” before and after the deal was made: She shaped tough sanctions by joining initiatives Lieberman helped lead in the Senate and then as secretary of state in Obama’s first term, and seeks to enforce the deal in the post-Obama era.
“I was disappointed in her support of the agreement,” Lieberman said, but added: “She helped build the climate of economic stress in Iran that brought the Iranians to the table. The Obama administration then basically made a bad deal and didn’t get from the Iranians what he could have gotten, which was really an end to their nuclear program.
“Now that’s a fact, so I say: Before the agreement, she was very strong on the sanctions, after the agreement she’s been clear she’s going to monitor Iran’s compliance with the agreement, and if they don’t comply she’s not only going to lodge complaints, but if necessary she’ll be prepared to use American military force to stop development of a nuclear weapon by Iran.”
It is precisely Clinton’s advocacy for a more potent U.S. profile overseas that underscores Lieberman’s distaste for Trump. He also outlined Clinton’s pro-Israel record throughout her Senate career and then as secretary of state.
“She’s so much better prepared for the Middle East alone to be the next president as compared to Donald Trump, who has no record in this regard and who sometimes seems to be suggesting that we pull back from a lot of parts of the world, including the Middle East, which would be terrible for Israel,” he said.
Lieberman recalled how Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, a fellow Yalee, stumped for him in the 1970s, when Lieberman first ran for the state Senate, and then Lieberman’s endorsement of Bill Clinton in 1992, one of the first by a Northern senator.
“I was very proud that I did” endorse Clinton, said Lieberman. “I thought he was an exceptional president.”
Lieberman made history in 1998 when he became the first Democrat on the Senate floor to denounce Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. That foreshadowed a slow, painful rupture with the party, accelerated by Lieberman’s backing of President George W. Bush’s Iraq War, which led to Lieberman losing the 2006 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. He went on to win as an Independent and then quit politics in 2012, but not before endorsing his old friend Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the 2008 presidential election. That move seemed to be a permanent breach with a party whose left wing he had identified with as a youth. (Bill Clinton backed Lieberman “against the establishment” in the 1970s, Lieberman fondly recalled.)
Despite the “unhappy” Lewinsky episode, Lieberman said, Bill Clinton was ecstatic when Gore named him his running mate, and stumped for him during the 2006 primary.
Now, he’s returning the favor.
“There are still some persuadables in the general community and the Jewish community,” Lieberman said. “I think this community is moving in the direction of Hillary Clinton and I’m glad to be here to make the case.”
CAP: Joe Lieberman speaking to Jewish voters on behalf of Hillary Clinton at The Shul in Surfside, Fla., Oct. 20. (Courtesy of the Hillary Clinton campaign)