Lieberman And Cultural Stereotypes


Jon Chait on Joe Lieberman's lack of smarts:

I also think liberals, myself included, might be driving ourselves a little nuts trying to divine Lieberman's motives. He keeps flip-flopping and explaining his shifts by making demonstrably false claims. What's his game? Why does he keep saying these wrong, uninformed things?

I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn't actually all that smart. He speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. But there's little evidence that he's a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform. At one point during the 2000 recount, the Gore campaign explained to Lieberman why lowering standards for military ballots would be totally unfair and illegal, and Lieberman proceeded to go on television and subvert the campaign's position. Gore loyalists interpreted this as a sellout, but perhaps the more plausible explanation was that Lieberman -- who, after all, badly wanted to be vice-President -- just didn't understand the details of the Gore position well enough to defend it. The guy was taken apart by Dick Cheney in the 2000 veep debate.

I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it's not true. If Senator Smith from Idaho was angering Democrats by spewing uninformed platitudes, most liberals would deride him as an idiot. With Lieberman, we all suspect it's part of a plan.

I don't know. It was rather shocking, to me, that Lieberman's policy arguments on health care were so thin. The notion that Lieberman doesn't actually get it, or is flummoxed by the work of getting it, that he's never actually gotten it, may well be true. But if we're missing it, I don't think it's because Joe Lieberman is Jewish.

Specifically, Senator Smith from Idaho would be repping a red state and thus likely would have risen in the manner of Ben Nelson--possibly pro-life, almost certainly to the right of the national party. Thus Senator Smith's opposition to a public option might make more sense.

More broadly, I don't think people expect Joe Lieberman to "have a plan" because he's a Jewish senator, they expect it because he's a four-term senator. They expect it because he was an almost Vice-President and  front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. They expect it because he was endorsed by none other than the editors of The New Republic.

Those expectation may well be born out of naivete. But I doubt they come from an overestimation of Jewish intelligence. I'm a 6'4 black dude who can't play a lick of basketball. But if I show up at the Rucker with the rock, in shorts and Jordan's--smack-talking, no less--you're not racist for expecting me to box out.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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