The McCain-Lieberman Gamble

To understand the importance of Joe Lieberman's mid-December endorsement of John McCain, you need to first know that it was sought before it was offered. As Lieberman tells it, it was late November, a couple days after he and McCain returned from a congressional fact-finding trip to Iraq, when McCain asked. "I don't want to get you in any more trouble than you're already in, but you could really help me out here, Joe." And Joe did. "I don't think John McCain is God," Lieberman said at a McCain event in Nashua, New Hampshire, last night, "but like in [the book of] Jeremiah, John called, and I answered."

McCain's appeal for Lieberman's endorsement -- "you could really help me out" -- suggests he saw it as more than a mere mark of friendship. He considered Lieberman's benediction a political blessing. This says much about the McCain campaign's newest -- and apparently, somewhat successful -- strategy. After spending four or five years cozying up to Bush and the Christian Right in order to repent for the independence of his 2000 bid, McCain is attempting to recapture a bit of that straight talkin' magic that vaulted him to victory in New Hampshire eight years ago. But in attaching himself to Lieberman, McCain inadvertently illuminates the tensions that have, till now, been dormant in his own under-performing campaign, but will, if he wins New Hampshire (and recent polls show him ahead), burst back to the fore. Lieberman and McCain increasingly occupy the same uneasy political space -- that of the self-styled, but still party-affiliated, "independent" -- and as Lieberman's humiliation in the 2004 presidential primaries, and his defeat in the 2006 Senate primary, proved, it's not always a politically tenable position.

One of the side effects of Lieberman’s recent defeats has been a massive increase in popularity amongst Republicans. So his speech in Nashua, New Hampshire was organized by the McCain campaign, held at a supporter's home, and attended by a range of Republicans, some strong supporters of McCain, some skeptics unconvinced of his conservative bona fides. But all, so far as I could tell, adored Lieberman. One of the first folks I talked to compared him to Reagan. The mayor of Nashua left him a key to the city, and said that he would've switched parties to vote for him had he won the nomination in 2004 ("Any of the Democrats look acceptable to you this time around?" I asked. He laughed derisively. "I can only go so far," he replied.)

Lieberman is loved for much the same reason McCain is mistrusted. One undecided conservative told me that his doubts about McCain come from his apparent game of footsie with John Kerry in 2004. Flip the coin, though, and you get the warm feelings for Lieberman, the product of his repeated kicks at the Democratic Party. For conservatives, Lieberman's acts of apostasy were so total, so commendable, that this "Independent Democrat" who continues to vote for Harry Reid as majority leader can actually strengthen McCain among Republicans uncertain of McCain’s fealty to their faith.

All this allows Lieberman to construct a telling, if internally muddled, case for McCain. Lieberman supports McCain because he's "increasingly troubled by the hyper-partisanship of our system," but nevertheless assures wavering Republicans that, "from my unique perspective as an Independent Democrat, I can tell you that John McCain is the most electable candidate the Republicans have." He fortifies McCain's foreign policy bona fides by telling the audience that "McCain sees the transcendent challenge of our time, radical Islamic extremism" but then swears that McCain will continue to be "very aggressive about democracy promotion." Lieberman backs up McCain's claims to experience by assuring the crowd that "McCain is very respected by world leaders," but then calms the restive warmongers in the audience by letting them know that "Vladimir Putin doesn't like McCain. And that's a good thing!" The clash between Lieberman's pro-choice record and McCain's consistent pro-life beliefs is played up as evidence that political opponents can respectfully disagree, and that McCain doesn’t waver in his convictions. So, in Lieberman’s telling, McCain is the candidate best able to break free of partisanship and stomp the Democrats, the most conscious of Islamic extremism and committed to the policies that perpetuate it, the most respected by world leaders who hate him, and the most consistent supporter of the regressive social policies Lieberman has spent his political life battling against.

Even so in all of this, Lieberman is a convincing surrogate. Warm and funny on the stump, he establishes an easy rapport with the crowd, and comes off like nothing so much as a wise and worldly friend. But in trying to help McCain be all things to all people, in trying to help him recapture the independence of his 2000 run while retaining the panders of his 2008 campaign, he chips away at the authenticity of both. Partisan gridlock in Washington is not, after all, merely a product of clashing personalities. It is the outcome of extreme policies, like aggressively promoting democracy at the point of a gun, or displaying a contempt for diplomacy that transforms the dislike of a major world leader into an applause line rather than a cause for concern, or asserting that women should be legally compelled to bring unwanted pregnancies to term. In promising McCain's adherence to all of them, he assures that there will be nothing approaching consensus under a McCain presidency. A moderate personality cannot replace a moderate politics.

That is not to say there is nothing to recommend McCain's candidacy, particularly compared to the rest of the Republicans. Indeed, many of Lieberman's arguments in McCain's favor deserve serious consideration. McCain is an accomplished congressional deal-maker. He did undergo a personal evolution on global warming that resulted in not only an admission of its existence (sadly, that alone is impressive for a Republican), but fairly serious legislation to combat it. He's often proven himself dogged at oversight. And he is, by all accounts, a genuinely decent man.

And that matters. It’s the most common reason, in my experience, that New Hampshirites give for supporting McCain. Faced with the hollow panders of Mitt Romney and the lunacy of Rudy Giuliani, McCain's steady persona and reputation for honesty have made him something of a safe harbor for confounded conservatives. If Iowa ends in confusion, if Huckabee prevails and tosses the race into chaos, McCain's predictability and perceived electoral strengths could win him New Hampshire. But once back in the spotlight, McCain's ability to be an independent to some and a conservative to others may prove limited. He will need to choose the side of Lieberman's appeal that thrills the right, or the portions that appeal to the center. Indeed, Lieberman's uneasy role as an "independent Democrat" sheds some light on the tough position McCain may soon be in. After all, as the lonely and increasingly friendless Lieberman has found, being an independent Democrat doesn't really mean that you're a Democrat with a reputation for independence. It means that you're a politician without a home, and with enough appeal to the constituency that won't vote for you that you alienate the folks who might. McCain may be a very good man. But it’s not clear that he, or anyone else, is that good of a politician.