Disengagement doesnt work, Lieberman says in S.F.

Speaking before a wildly supportive crowd Tuesday in San Francisco, Sen. Joseph Lieberman methodically outlined his views on the economy, the Middle East, the energy crisis and the current presidential administration.

But not before some opening shtick.

"I sympathize with all Californians who are experiencing a power failure. You could say I know what it's like: I experienced my own form of power failure last fall," joked the former Democratic vice presidential candidate from Connecticut. "That was no fun, although our trouble was not caused by energy deregulation but more by judicial interposition."

A grinning Lieberman said he'd told President Bush, should he eventually nominate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for chief justice, "the odds against me voting for Scalia are 5-to-4."

Following his speech to the Commonwealth Club, Lieberman took written questions — the bulk of which inquired about his presidential aspirations in 2004. (His answer to that one: "Well, thank you for asking!")

A number of queries sought the Jewish senator's opinion on the swiftly escalating Middle East crisis.

"In the aftermath of the failure of Camp David II and the very shocking rejection by [Palestinian Authority] Chairman [Yasser] Arafat of the offer from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — which I would call breathtaking — there has been a cycle of violence," he said. "The cycle really does threaten to go out of control, with grave consequences for the region and world."

Lieberman stated conditions in the Middle East were probably at their lowest point since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Should President Bush be slow on the draw to get involved in the situation, Lieberman warned that other world leaders would quickly take key roles — for better or worse.

"The danger for us is others will fill the vacuum our American disengagement creates," he said. "[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin has already said he's interested in doing that. Worst of all, Iran and Iraq could do it in deterrence of peace."

Bush has not done enough to halt the violence, according to Lieberman.

"It's a natural tendency for a new president to try and distinguish himself from a former president. While some critics said President Clinton was too involved in the Middle East, I think his work was very constructive and ultimately led to significant progress being made.

"Bush, thus far, seems disengaged, and I hope not any longer. I hope he dispatches a high-level envoy to the region almost immediately to try to talk to both sides and establish at least a state of non-belligerence. We're some way from being able to actively negotiate the peace process."

"Disengaged" was an adjective Lieberman frequently applied to the president, regarding several different issues. Lieberman said he was "not surprised, but very disappointed" with the Bush administration for failing to address California's energy crisis.

Ignoring California's woes is like staying out of a regional conflict abroad, until the "harm has been done and the cost involved is greater," he said.

"Incidentally, California is part of the United States. Disengagement doesn't work…California's economy is almost 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. You can't just sit back and not do something about such a direct threat to the health of this state's economy and the well-being of people here."

Lieberman suggested that, for starters, the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee ought to put temporary, "year, year-and-a-half" caps on the price of electricity.

He repeatedly chided Bush for his strong pursuit of $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, accusing the president of offering not a "prosperity plan" but a "tax plan…with no long-term vision."

Instead of locking projected surpluses into huge, across-the-board tax cuts, Lieberman proposed a reinvestment in education, scientific research and development, job training and smaller, directed tax cuts and tax credits for education and business modernization.

The senator plans to introduce legislation Monday allotting more money and decision-making flexibility to school districts. While he said the bill has presidential support, he claims Bush's recently submitted budget "doesn't provide enough funds by far to the most disadvantaged schools."

"It's because he spends so much money on his tax plan."

While keeping tight-lipped on his own plans for 2004, Lieberman maintained that, even barring a major gaffe or disaster, Bush could be beaten if he continues to "act the way he has in his first almost 100 days."

"Though he ran as a 'compassionate conservative,' he really has governed too often as a contentious or cold conservative," Lieberman said. "The president talked about cooperation and he seems civil in his interpersonal relations, but this administration, programmatically, seems incredibly confrontational. Almost from the beginning. No matter how cordial you are in what you say, these very provocative actions make cooperation difficult."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.