Lieberman Addresses RNC, Makes Case for John McCain

Former Democratic VP candidate speaks to RNC, praises John McCain; Shays says Lieberman’s political future at risk

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Al Gore’s choice for VP in the 2000 election, and still a self-proclaimed Democrat —though he was voted out in his party’s primary, before winning back his Senate seat as an independent— addressed the Republican National Convention last night, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Lieberman enthusiastically endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and said his goal is to work as hard as possible to make him the next president of the United States.

Republicans had said Lieberman would not attack fellow Democrat Barack Obama, senator from Illinois and his party’s nominee for president, but in the end he did question Obama’s policies, his approach to foreign affaris and his depth of experience. Many Democrats have expressed outrage at Lieberman’s enthusiastic support of Bush Iraq policy and of Sen. John McCain. There is a grassroots movement —which originally started after Lieberman backed the Iraq war, and led to his defeat in the 2006 Democratic primary— seeking to oust him from the Senate and elect another Democrat in his place.

A number of Democratic party luminaries have speculated that Lieberman’s devout support for Sen. McCain is almost entirely to do with his convictions about the Iraq war. There is also speculation that if the Democrats win a handful of additional seats in the Senate, Lieberman will lose the committee chairmanships that keep the Democrats in the majority and allow Lieberman to excercise greater influence. Rep. Shays, also of Connecticut, has said he believes Lieberman put his political future on the line with this speech.

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Sen. Lieberman says he supports McCain because he believes it is necessary to transcend the partisan battles that tend to characterize Washington politics, especially since the 1994 “Republican revolution”, which pitted a deeply conservative Republican Congress against Democratic president Bill Clinton. Lieberman told the RNC crowd:

But when they look to Washington, all too often they do not see their leaders coming together to tackle these problems. Instead they see Democrats and Republicans fighting each other, rather than fighting for the American people…It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to teach us that the American people don’t care much if you have an “R” or a “D” after your name.

The weight of Lieberman’s message is, however, limited by a number of factors about this year’s campaign, not the least of which is the Democratic candidate’s own eloquent and impassioned calls for a “post-partisan” cooperative relationship in Washington. Obama burst onto the national scene in 2004, when he gave a speech about national unity to the DNC, declaring that “There are not red states and blue states; there are the United States”, a formula he has echoed consistently in speeches and town-hall meetings across the country.

In fact, Obama’s entire political philosophy seems to be channeled through his humanist vision of unity that comes through sharing in the process of democracy. In his 2004 DNC address, he declared that:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an “awesome God” in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

So, Lieberman’s case for McCain being the candidate that can best be trusted to take action in a bipartisan way is mitigated by the fact that no candidate in recent memory has so wagered his political fortunes on that very message as McCain’s opponent in the 2008 race. McCain has had a history of bipartisan efforts, and has been close friends with many Democratic senators, both Joe Lieberman and Obama’s VP choice Joe Biden included.

But Lieberman’s voice is really aimed more at dissuading voters from the perception that McCain has shifted ever closer to the policies of George W. Bush in recent years, once his arch-rival whose positions and methods nearly drove McCain to leave the party. In order to constrast Sen. McCain’s record with that of Sen. Obama, Lieberman did attack Obama on the question of experience, saying:

Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But eloquence is no substitute for a record—not in these tough times. In the Senate he has not reached across party lines to get anything significant done, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party. Contrast that to John McCain’s record, or the record of the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, who stood up to some of those same Democratic interest groups and worked with Republicans to get important things done like welfare reform, free trade agreements, and a balanced budget.

Specifics to support Sen. Lieberman’s attack on the bipartisan question were, however, lacking. Obama instantly began to work with Republicans upon entering the Senate, something that ruffled the feathers of some elder Democratic senators who saw it as a presumptuous means of securing more influence even as a freshman senator. The following are a few examples of Sen. Obama’s bipartisan efforts:

  • The Lugar-Obama threat reduction initiative, extending American efforts to curb the spread of WMD across the world to conventional weapons, with the aim of reducing the threat to American national security from rogue states or hostile militia groups
  • The Coburn-Obama Transparency Act, which established an online database tracking all government spending, so taxpayers can, for the first time, see and analyze for themselves how their money is spent
  • The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, of which he was one of the principal sponsors, which instituted new disclosure requirements for all exchanges of gifts or funding between lobbyists and elected officials, sweeping ethics reform that forced states to revamp their transparency policies regaring earmark requests
  • Veterans’ issues: Sen. Obama is one of the members of the US Senate with the most consistent record, during his short time there, of defending healthcare and economic interests of veterans, in legislation often supported by cross-aisle efforts

It is clear that Sen. Lieberman’s participation in the convention stems from concern that the precise issues on which he supports John McCain are issues which voters tend to see Obama as more likely deliver on. But Lieberman’s message was strong and his presence itself is a significant coup for the McCain campaign. He said of his favored candidate that “you can always count on him to be straight with you about where he stands, and to stand for what he thinks is right regardless of politics.”

He clearly aims to court independent voters and Democrats skeptical of Sen. Obama. Analysts gave the senator high marks for his delivery and Republicans hope the central message will stick in viewers’ minds, that:

As president, you can count on John McCain to be … a restless reformer, who will clean up Washington and get our government working again for you! So tonight, I want to ask you whether you are independent, a Reagan Democrat, a Clinton Democrat, or just a plain old Democrat: This year, when you vote for president, vote for the person you believe is best for the country, not for the party you belong to.

It remains to be seen if the speech itself will have an impact on Sen. Obama’s support among Democrats and independents. Democrats sought to downplay the impact of the speech, and many have quipped that Sen. Lieberman has tied his political legacy and the very scope of his political activity to the issue of the Iraq war and the perception that Sen. McCain’s long Senate experience and military service qualify him to lead in a time of war, but a majority of voters side with the Democratic candidate on Iraq policy.

The speech has clearly set a tone that will be repeated endlessly throughout the fall campaign: that John McCain “puts country first” and that his experience should assure voters he will be a more capable commander-in-chief. It also has sought to take back the “judgment” issue from the Democrats, who achieved significant polling milestones after their convention last week, with 50% of registered voters saying they back Obama and an equal percentage viewing Obama as “ready to lead” as view McCain as ready.

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