What should we make of Senator Joe Lieberman’s endorsement of fellow-Senator John McCain in New Hampshire today? Perhaps not too much in the end but I have several thoughts about this endorsement.
First, McCain asked for Leiberman’s support and no Democrat did. (I doubt there are any Democrats who want his support and he, and they, know it.) Lieberman, who lost in the Democratic Primary in Connecticut in 2006, but then ran and won as an independent, still caucuses with the Democrats. He says that he chose his longtime Republican Senate colleague because he has the best shot of breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington. Maybe so. Both men do support the war in Iraq, a war that is going far better in recent months but you wouldn’t know it from the Democrats. It is specifically his support of the War in Iraq that explains the reason Lieberman is a pariah in his own party, where you are expected to walk lock-step with the leadership or else. When did you last hear a Democrat speak of military success in Iraq? Frankly, liberals despise Joe Lieberman for his support of the war and will never forgive him for it. This is the party in which there is little or no room for bi-partisan positions. (The same is true on the other side, to a lesser extent, thus the conservtive hatred for McCain is so high among some Republicans.)
In making his announcement Lieberman said: "On all the issues, you’re never going to do anything about them unless you have a leader who can break through the partisan gridlock. The status quo in Washington is not working."
Independents can vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on January 8, and these are the very people McCain is obviously targeting, much as he did in winning the state’s Republican primary in 2000 over George W. Bush.
Second, Lieberman made it clear that McCain’s approach to Iraq, and his credentials on national security, are the main reasons that he is supporting a Republican for president. But both men said the election seems increasingly about the economy and domestic issues rather than Iraq. On those issues, Lieberman acknowledged that he does not always see eye-to-eye with McCain. But, said Lieberman, McCain is always straightforward about where he stands, something he finds admirable. I agree and wish more politicians were like these two older guys who clearly love their country over their political parties.
For McCain, behind in the polls in New Hampshire but gaining some ground, this endorsement carries the risk of alienating conservatives all the more since many of them have been critical of his support for immigration and campaign finance reforms, both positions that he also shares with Lieberman.
Third, I actually believe John McCain consistently tells the truth and doesn’t care what the polls say. (I briefly met Senator McCain once and told him this to his face, for which he expressed warm gratitude.) I don’t always agree with him but I have always admired him. He is a true patriot, a consistent social conservative, and a man of deep personal principle. The problem is that he does not align himself with the Religious Right and thus holds positions that are not always liked by some conservatives. (Some conservatives have made it clear that there are two men they will not support under any circumstances: John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. I can understand the reaction to Rudy, based on his social views, but I confess that I have never understood this visceral hatred for McCain.) "If I get some criticism for aligning myself with a good friend I have worked with for many years, I will be more than happy to accept that criticism," McCain said. I believe that the McCain and Lieberman relationship is one of respect and deep personal friendship, a friendship that goes beyond their differences, which is something too rare in our modern partisan environment.
Fourth, Lieberman is still, at least in his basic approach to governing and political philosophy, a Democrat. But he is willing to seek what is best for his country. The Connecticut Senator said in his endorsement statement: "Political party is important, but it’s not more important than what’s good for the country and it’s not more important than friendship” (italics mine). Strike a blow for real friendship among senators who have often disagreed. What a rare thing in public, even though we know it happens in private.
High-profile Democrats abandoned Lieberman after his primary defeat in 2006 and leading Democrats weren’t happy with his move today either. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a public statement: "I have the greatest respect for Joe, but I simply have to disagree with his decision to endorse Senator McCain." Meanwhile, Al From, the founder and CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said, "I am very saddened by Senator Lieberman’s choice and profoundly disagree with it. We need to elect a Democratic president in 2008." Yes, of course, only one party has the answers to our present political morass and leadership gap. I think what sets McCain and Lieberman apart is that they reject that approach and I for one happen to agree with them.
Politically I doubt this endorsement will change much of anything as McCain seems to have no traction within his own party. But this endorsement moved me to give thanks that two old friends could find a way to publicly share the stage together even though they still profoundly disagree. I just found that refreshing and far too uncommon today.