Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman first came to national prominence when Vice-President Al Gore picked him for the No. 2 spot on the 2000 Democratic ticket. But Lieberman has long been well known in corporate circles for his fiscally conservative, socially moderate views. He was one of the co-founders of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of like-minded moderates who have been wooing business support in recent elections.
Lieberman has also waded into thorny high-tech issues, such as reforming stock-option accounting and providing tax credits for the broadband industry. He's now leading a Senate investigation into what government reforms are needed in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy.
His ties to Corporate America and his national name recognition put Lieberman at the top of the short list of Democratic contenders to challenge President George W. Bush in 2004. And he's definitely interested. On Mar. 14, Lieberman sat down to talk with a group of BusinessWeek reporters and editors in Washington. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q: If you wait for former Vice-President Al Gore to decide whether he's running again in 2004, does that delay put you at a serious disadvantage?
A: That calculus is a bit premature. Anyone who wants to run credibly in '04 has to make a decision by the end of this calendar year. But for now, I am interested enough in the possibility of myself running that I've been doing what I would be doing if I had decided to run. On the last break, I went to Colorado, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.
Q: And New Hampshire, too. Is there anything that would stop you besides a Gore candidacy?
A: Just some big important things, like my personal life. Is my family with me? The other thing is that I learned early in my career that you shouldn't run for something just because it's there. You should run for something because you have a reason to run for it, you have policies that will enable you to do the job better for the state or district or country. We've got to get to that point. But I'm in the process of laying out that case.
Q: The public voice of your party is liberal. How do you craft a message that resonates with ordinary voters?
A: I've always tried to work from the center out. I'm an independent thinker, sometimes to the right of my party, sometimes maybe more liberal or progressive on things like environmental protection. But I think ultimately, to win you've got to be center out.
Q: Bush has been shifting to the center on many issues. Where do Democrats, as a party, get traction in this campaign?
A: The Democratic Leadership Council had this trinity of values -- opportunity, responsibility, and community.... Bush, when he ran for reelection [for Texas governor], went around the state on a big bus that said on it, "Opportunity and responsibility." We figured that community can't be far behind.... The cosmetics are moderate, but the policies are not. The policies are still to the right.
Q: For example, Bush's environmental policies? What else?
A: The environment is a clear case. And the economy. Bush gave us a tax plan, not a prosperity plan.... He has taken us in a year -- not single-handedly, obviously -- into deficit. By his numbers, we're going to go $1.8 trillion into the Social Security trust fund essentially to pay for his tax cut. That's a mistake.
Q: Would you roll back the tax cut?
A: It's not a reality now because [Bush] won't deal with it.... There are a number of Democrats in the Senate who won't deal with it. They voted for it. If I had my druthers, I'd put the brakes on parts of [the tax cut], certainly the reduction in taxes for higher income.
Q: But you supported large parts of the Bush tax cut?
A: I supported parts of the proposal, over $800 billion of it -- the child tax credit, the reduction in the marriage penalty, education tax incentives. And I've been proposing a whole series of what I think are growth incentives, tax cuts that would create growth. Zero capital gains on small business and tax incentives to hook up to broadband.
Q: On another corporate issue, what should Congress do in response to the Enron failure?
A: We have to acknowledge that government cannot or should not, in response to Enron or anything else, try to regulate every act that anybody in business does. Hopefully, one response will be that people who are making these decisions will make them in a better way than the Enron people did.
I think the experience of what happened to Enron -- now there have been a couple others -- has a cleansing or deterrent effect. It creates, at a minimum, embarrassment. At the worst, it may create incarceration. But that embarrassment makes it more likely at least for a period of time that these sins won't be committed again in other places.
Q: So there's no need for Congress to legislate?
A: I'd like to see it do something about the accounting profession, [maybe] by way of putting together a stronger oversight board that has more independence from the profession itself. And perhaps [adopting] something by law -- the separation, for instance, of the accounting and auditing functions. Maybe that's a statement we ought to make in law just to establish a standard.
Q: Should we change 401(k) laws to cap holdings of individual stock?
A: My tendency now is to say we shouldn't. If we freed [employees] from the age restriction and as many other restrictions as we can, and we give them the kind of investment advice that most of us are talking about, then on balance it's probably better to leave it.
Q: You're a leader on New Economy issues in Congress. What's your impression of Bush's tech policy so far?
A: I don't get the feeling that this second Bush Administration understands the New Economy, the high-tech economy, any better [than the first Bush Administration]. Broadband, for example, is very exciting and a potentially enormously enriching facility.... But the Bush Administration still hangs back. I'm not sure they get it on investments in research yet, either.