Commentary Magazine

The Argument for Lieberman

With John McCain’s vice presidential pick only a few weeks away and the race between him and Barack Obama far closer than either of them probably thought it would be at this point, the possibility of McCain choosing Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate suddenly seems both credible and plausible in a way it didn’t a few months ago.

It appears, from the consistency of McCain’s numbers in the polling data, that he has shored up the Republican base — or, perhaps, that the base has spent the spring and summer taking the measure of Barack Obama and has decided it must unite against him. The latest anecdotal evidence: two recently released anti-Obama books have shot to the top of the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists. This may not seem like a big deal, but the conservative book market has been dead for two years now (with the exception of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism), and its sudden resurgence indicates something potentially significant.

So McCain no longer has to close the sale with conservatives, which is a good thing for him, because to win, McCain is going to need to pivot to the center, especially after spending most of the past year trying to reassure the Right. His advantage going into the fall, with the number of Republican voters apparently declining and the number of independents increasing, is that he is not a conventional Republican. But it won’t be enough for him to say it, or to invoke his record; that record is unknown to most voters, who really don’t pay that much attention. He will have to reinforce it with action. And he may want to do something dramatic, especially if Obama’s convention goes well and his baseball stadium speech before 75,000 cheering fans makes a huge impression on the voting public.

McCain’s most dramatic possible play would be the selection of Lieberman — a Democrat who was only eight years earlier his party’s nominee for vice president and, after losing his own party’s line in a Senate reelection bid in 2006 and winning instead as an independent, now calls himself an Independent Democrat. In selecting Lieberman, McCain would be doubling down on the central bet of his candidacy — that aexperience, gravitas, and a willingness to buck the leaders of his own party out of a sense of integrity and what the American people need will trump youth-dynamism-charisma. In choosing Lieberman, McCain can credibly say that he is the candidate of change in 2008 — a candidate of political change, willing to throw out partisan categories in pursuit of two specific goals.

Those goals are first, constructing a post-Bush foreign policy that aims to solidify the gains in Iraq and face down the threats posed by Iran’s march forward and (the new entry) Russia’s effort to reconstitute some kind of empire. And second, to do something about the corrupt political culture in Washington through an aggressive campaign of reform that can unite Republicans and Democrats just as he has sought to bring them together by creating a coalition ticket. (Some of these ideas come from a cigar-smoking friend who doesn’t want his name trumpeted.)

What are the risks? First, there is the disaffection of pro-lifers and other social conservatives, who don’t like Lieberman’s record. That can be dealt with in part by reminding people that Lieberman was an ally of social conservatives on issues of family and morality and the crudity of popular culture in the 1990s. But that will not be enough. Lieberman will have to pledge not to seek the presidency, and to make the point that he is a man of his word. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the Lieberman choice all but requires McCain himself to pledge he will serve only one term, because the goal of his presidency will be to right the ship of state and change the atmosphere in Washington, and then get out of town.

There are other risks. Lieberman has the same kind of expertise as McCain, on national security matters, and so he wouldn’t broaden McCain’s pitch. We also don’t know what kind of electoral problem Lieberman’s Orthodox Judaism might present, even though he has run on a national ticket before and even though this is a year in which at least 60 million Americans can be expected to vote for a black man.

Here’s what we do know. We know McCain and Lieberman are very, very close. We know that McCain is a very personal politician, and the condition of his relationship with his vice president will matter to him. We know, primarily, that McCain believes Lieberman is a patriot and that he has shown political bravery in going his own way and not being cowed by the forces in his own party that sought to destroy him. Mostly, we know that McCain likes to make ambitious political gestures in the direction of bipartisanship. He doesn’t when it doesn’t help him; now that it might help him, he might be even more tempted to go for it.

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