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What is it about Joe Lieberman that makes people crazy?

I don't want to make this weblog a Lieberman Defense site (indeed, I don't want to write much about the 2004 campaign at all), but I can't understand how it is that people look at this fairly mild-mannered, sometimes annoying and sometimes charming, accomplished moderate/liberal and see Satan?

In the Village Voice (which I haven't read in years, I confess), Rick Perlstein goes bananas over a scenario under which Lieberman destroys the Democratic nominee if it's not him:
The Village Voice: Features: Day of the Spoiler by Rick Perlstein

His argument is that Lieberman will "pick up some delegates here and there...[but] as his star fades, he'll have only one viable strategy left, a manic, all-or-nothing strategy: trying to convince Democrats that the front-runner must be dumped altogether, using the dark arts of opposition research, trying to dig up something purportedly embarrassing from the front-runner's past that the jubilant Republicans might even have missed if left to their own devices." His support for this prediction: it's kind of what Al Gore did in 1988, when he was running as the Democratic Leadership Council candidate and hit Dukakis with everything he could find, including the first attacks on Massachusetts's prison furlough program, which in the Republicans' hands and with an added gloss of racial coding became the Willie Horton ad.

Perlstein is a smart guy,who wrote a wonderful book about the rise of Goldwater that I reviewed two years ago. He knows the history of modern presidential campaigns as well as anyone. But this scenario is crazy. First, of course, Republican oppo research isn't missing anything. And they didn't need Gore to point them to Willie Horton in 1988 either. And Lieberman is not Gore. He is not given to "manic" self-destructive outbursts. Whereas Gore is, not so much because he's a bad guy but -- I believe -- because he's never really liked politics or been comfortable in it. He's like a boxer who doesn't really know or like what he's doing -- dangerous to himself and others. A couple of years ago I read the transcripts of all the 1988 debates, and from the very start, Gore stands out. Six guys are having a reasonable, respectful exchange about trade, farm policy, defense, whatever, and then -- BOOM! -- in comes Gore, hitting away from the left, right, and center. Gephardt -- you supported Reagan. Simon -- you're soft on ethanol. Dukakis -- you're weak on defense. He had just turned 40, was in over his head, had too many handlers with their own agendas (David Garth in New York, Al From elsewhere), and didn't know what he was doing. Of course, he didn't have the same excuse when he pounded away at Bill Bradley twelve years later.

Whatever Gore's motivations in 1988 -- and I do subscribe to the psychobiographical theory that he's not a natural politician, but needed to prove something to his father, and thus reacted with panic rather than natural grace when in a tough spot -- none of this applies to Lieberman. He's a grownup, he knows his own mind, he's graceful and instinctively modest, and he's an incredible natural politician. He's also a very loyal Democrat who has never done anything to hurt his party. (Although one comment on my earlier post noted that his decision to run for his Senate seat simultaneously with the vice presidency in 2000 would have hurt Democrats had he won because it would have turned the Senate over to the Republicans, because the Republican governor of Connecticut would have named his replacement.)

Perlstein concludes that Lieberman "must withdraw. He should do it fast." Why? Because Perlstein predicts that if he stays in the race he will do something that's completely out of character for him? Or because, as Perlstein says elsewhere, he might become the nominee but activist Democrats will be turned off and won't help him? That doesn't make any sense either: He's not going to become the nominee without support from the activist base of the party. It's not like the power brokers of the party are going to anoint him against the wishes of the base.

The funny thing is that Perlstein, after attending a fundraiser, notices just what I pointed out earlier:

Joseph Lieberman may be more conservative than the other Democratic candidates, and he may be puppyishly eager—disastrously, selfishly so—to advertise the fact. But let's face it: When it comes right down to it, he is still a Democrat. His handsomely progressive new tax plan shows that.

So, then, what's the big deal? He's probably not going to be the nominee, and if he is, it's because proposals like his progressive tax plan actually generated enthusiasm among Democrats.

Finally, just an aside: Perlstein reports that the only way he could see Lieberman in person is at a $250 fundraiser. "Bingo," he says. "That my reporter's expense account could afford." Unfortunately, he's going to be out $250 because it's against the law for your employer to reimburse you for a political contribution.

He's still a great historian.


Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 23, 2003 | Permalink

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Comments

This is not related to the Village Voice point

What drives people crazy about Lieberman?...How about the military ballots in Florida? (maybe you've discussed this somewhere already)

I think that gets me the most.

Other things:

His opportunistic early trashing of Clinton over Lewinsky that legitimized the Republican witchhunt.

His pushing of stock options on behalf of his CT base.

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