Empty Promises

One of the more useless means of measuring support for the presidential candidates is now underway: the race among candidates to win endorsements from members of Congress. It carries little if any weight with voters -- most of whom probably don't even know it's happening -- and doesn't mean much for the candidates or the lawmakers who endorse them. Still, it's a way to feed the press beast, which is always looking for new information about the men (and woman) who want to win the nation's highest office.

On Thursday Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) held a press conference to announce that 10 House members have endorsed him. The comments made by the lawmakers were typically bland. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a first-term congressman, said: "I am supporting Joe Lieberman for president because he is a man of high integrity and strong morals. Not only did he take the time to come to my district, he truly listened to my constituents and quickly understood the needs of the central valley." Another freshman lawmaker, Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), noted, "Joe Lieberman combines the best overall qualifications and experience of any national leader with the principles, beliefs and style that best represent the mainstream of our country." If those impassioned statements don't just make you want to vote for Lieberman, well, I understand.

Perhaps one reason Lieberman chose to announce these endorsements now is to bolster his campaign after its weak fundraising numbers for the first three months of this year. The 2000 vice-presidential nominee raised less money than Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), and only slightly more than former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.). It was a pretty pathetic showing for a man who doubtlessly had access to plenty of top-level donors during the last campaign.

What was even sadder, though, was a Lieberman campaign memo -- part of which was included in Roll Call -- which told lawmakers to choose why they're supporting Lieberman from among four possible reasons: "1) he is socially progressive; 2) he is fiscally responsible; 3) he is tough on defense and homeland security; 4) he has a pro-growth economic agenda. OR alternatively, you could just say a few words about Joe's character/integrity." As one staffer for another candidate told Roll Call, "Even Joe Lieberman's own staff can only come up with four reasons to support him."

But I digress. Other lawmakers are also making their own endorsement lists known. According to CQ Today, six North Carolina House Democrats have endorsed Edwards; Kerry counts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Reps. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) in his camp. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has signed on with Dean and Gephardt's campaign looks like it has the support of three of his Missouri colleagues.

When George W. Bush ran for the White House in 2000, he secured the support of many House Republicans relatively early in the race. But it was his fundraising prowess -- after all, he had access to his father's wealthy friends and experienced advisers -- that mattered much more in building a successful campaign.

In fact, the only real value the congressional endorsements have is that they show whom the party's lawmakers view as a winner. It's far too early to tell that from these lists of supporters, especially because many of them are just backing their home-state colleagues. (And with six members of Congress, all from different states, running for the White House, the endorsements mean even less.) Lawmakers like to win and they like to be associated with winners; it's that self-interest that makes them decide to mount a candidate's bandwagon. And in exchange for the lawmakers' support, presidential candidates will often visit the members' districts, helping to raise money for both campaigns. If their candidate wins the White House, the lawmakers can brag to their friends about having the ear of the president or perhaps even win a cabinet position.

But what is really driving this train now is the media's desperate need for any new information on the campaign, and any way to differentiate the candidates. Yes, we may still be waging war against Iraq, but the political press never sleeps. With a field as large as the Democrats have and with a president who could well follow his father's footsteps into the hall of presidential one-termers, the media know this is a good story. Let's just hope they choose a more reliable indicator they next time they decide to share information with the rest of us.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.