Joementum II: Electric Boogaloo

Recently, when speaking with gambling-minded friends of mine, I've queried them on what odds a smart bookie would lay for a bet that Joseph Lieberman will give a speech at the Republican convention next year. Until today, I wouldn't have … Read More

By / December 16, 2007

Recently, when speaking with gambling-minded friends of mine, I've queried them on what odds a smart bookie would lay for a bet that Joseph Lieberman will give a speech at the Republican convention next year. Until today, I wouldn't have taken such a bet at less than 5-to-1. Now, though, I wouldn't bet against Lieberman speaking at the RNC unless I were offered odds. (I checked Intrade; unfortunately they're not offering a contract on this.) Multiple sources are reporting that Vinegar Joe will endorse John McCain for president and begin campaigning with him in New Hampshire.

Marc Ambinder analyzes Lieberman's move this way:

The endorsement could help McCain with independents in the state. Combine that with news that Rudy Giuliani is scaling back his advertising buy there, that the Boston Globe endorsed McCain, and that McCain's rivals are spending most of their time in Iowa.

The endorsement is further evidence of Lieberman's slow drift to the right in American politics and is bound to generate intense anger among Democrats who support him. But Lieberman and McCain have often walked in lockstep together on the prosecution of the war, have traveled to Iraq together, and have worked together on domestic issues like climate change.

This is a good recapitulation of conventional wisdom, but it seems mistaken to me. For one thing, Lieberman hasn't really been drifting to the right. He originally won his Senate seat by running to Lowell Weicker's right. William F. Buckley, who in 1988 was still something of a force in Connecticut politics, supported Lieberman enthusiastically:

He is a Democrat who: Applauded the use of military force in Grenada. Applauded the anti-terrorist strike in Libya. Applauded the deployment of naval forces to keep open the sea channel in the Persian Gulf All these positions, Republican Senator Weicker opposed.

Lieberman favors a moment of silence in the public schools; and-as he put it, "in order"-he believes in God, in love of country, and in the work ethic. By contrast, Lowell Weicker prays every day only that there shall never be prayers said at school.

Lieberman believes that Fidel Castro is one of the most finished totalitarians of the century: "He is more of a Marxist-Leninist than Gorbachev."

Or to be just a bit less sanguine than Buckley, Lieberman has always understood foreign policy as a matter of taking sides in a dichotomous ideological struggle, as in his apparently serious suggestion that their respective allegiances to Marxism-Leninism are useful proxies for assessing Gorbachev and Castro, and indeed, that in 1988 "Marxism-Leninism" is an informative description of a force in geopolitics. On the domestic front, Lieberman's ongoing hostility to personal freedom and compulsion to make private morality a public political issue and his subliterate and uneducated understanding of the establishment clause and secular government generally, all stretch back a long way. As Buckley notes, even when it comes to abortion rights, Lieberman has long managed to keep one brow righteously furrowed. The only manner in which Lieberman has arguably drifted right is rhetorically — his harangues against fellow Democrats might be somewhat more imperious, moralizing, and nasty than they used to be. Lieberman's substantive positions remain what they always were: expressions of aggressive paternalism at home and abroad.

Ambinder's larger point, to be sure, is that Lieberman can help McCain win in New Hampshire by shoring up his support among independents. Well, maybe. It's not clear what sort of grip Lieberman has on New Hampshire politics in light of his "three-way split decision for third place" there four years ago. By all indications, independents are a lot more interested in the Democratic primary, and not even Lieberman's ample charisma is likely to disturb that dynamic significantly.

From McCain's perspective, it might make some sense to roll the dice and see what happens, since he's finished if he can't win New Hampshire, but courting Lieberman seems to me an example of the same strategy that propelled him to defeat in 2000. As Mike Allen observes, "[the Lieberman endorsement] does not make sense for McCain because it will only remind core Republicans why they distrust him." If Lieberman's intervention on McCain's behalf has any effect on the race, the likeliest outcome will be a failure to draw independents away from the Democratic primary, coupled with an alienation of Republican voters who might otherwise have tolerated McCain as an electable alternative to Huckabee.

Moreover, even if McCain pulls off a New Hampshire victory with independent support, he'll need to be careful not to be resurrected as the maverick media darling he used to be — or else Republicans nationally will come to resent him just as they did in 2000. If the narrative coming out of New Hampshire is "centrist McCain wins with support of centrist Lieberman," McCain is not going to be the Republican nominee.

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