Republican Lite?

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Joe Lieberman sometimes seems to want to ride into the White House by donning an elephant’s suit. To his critics, he’s coming awfully close to selling himself as Bush Lite. According to Joe, the way to get America back on the right track is to vote for Lieberman, the man who’s not Bush, but who’s also not one of those extremist Democrats. On Monday, he told a National Press Club audience:

“I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the wrong direction he has taken our nation […] But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in outdated extremes of our own. That path will not solve the challenges of our time and it could well send us Democrats back to the political wilderness for a long time.”

But Lieberman’s frustration is significantly less focused than say, Howard Dean’s. Lieberman’s campaign strategy is pretty straight-forward: play it relatively conservative, say as little about the lack of WMDs as you can get away with, and criticize the other Dems for being too liberal. It seems this strategy was working for a brief period, but the latest polls show Lieberman lagging behind the other top candidates. The most recent Iowa poll shows Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt leading the pack with Joe trailing in fourth place, four points behind John Kerry.

John Nichols of the Nation writes that we shouldn’t be too surprised that Lieberman’s technique is failing him. He argues that Lieberman’s rush to the center is exactly what drove Democratic voters away in 2002.

“Democrats were consigned to the political wilderness in 2002, when party leaders chose to follow [Lieberman’s] counsel and cosy [sic] up to the Bush administration on issues such as war and peace, the USA Patriot Act and corporate welfare bailouts for the airline industry. While Republican turnout went up in 2002, Democratic turnout slackened. A quick analysis of the results led most Democrats — from presidential prospects to grassroots activists — to recognize that any further fuzzing of the margins between the parties in 2004 would be disastrous. So it comes as no surprise that the greatest applause line on the campaign trail has been Dean’s pledge to represent ‘the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.’

While all the other candidates are trying to pick up on Dean’s call to arms — with varying degrees of success — Lieberman continues to preach a Republican-lite line that is so out of touch with political realities on the ground in America that it inspires laughter at Democratic gatherings. Lieberman thinks he is in a fight for the future of the Democratic party, but the truth is that he has already lost that fight. As Donna Brazile, the manager of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign, explained to the Washington Post in May, ‘The bottom line is, he is defined as a conservative U.S. senator.’ While Lieberman disputes that definition, his continued defense of the war with Iraq and his refusal to back off his support for Wall Street’s free-trade agenda has pegged him in the minds of many Democrats as a candidate who is way out of step with a party that questions the war and complains about the loss of more than two million manufacturing jobs in recent years.”

Times are getting harder for right-leaning Dems, as Howard Dean has made questioning Bush’s motivations for war look like a viable path for a presidential candidate. But it isn’t just writers at the Nation who are hassling Lieberman about his strategy. Even some of his fans don’t think he has what it takes to win the primary. William Saletan of Slate likes Lieberman’s message, but thinks the Senator could use a little help with his delivery.

“Lieberman […] speaks of ‘strength’ in a faint, creaky voice. He makes a fist but never clenches it and seldom raises it above the podium. When he does swing it forward in an attempt to look forceful, his head reclines away, as though he’s the one getting punched. ‘My campaign has a lot of energy,’ he asserts in a voice trailing off. ‘I’m standing for something,’ he insists as he leans on the podium. In the flattest tone imaginable, he drones that he’s ‘stunned’ by Bush’s lack of preparation for postwar Iraq. He accuses Bush of ‘tighten[ing] the noose around working families’ necks’ and tries to illustrate the noose, but somehow can’t manage to close the distance between his hands to less than 18 inches. He threatens to hit Bush ‘right up the middle’ but defuses the gesture with an avuncular grin.

Lieberman isn’t the only candidate in this race who’s mismatched with his message. One of the comedies of the 2004 campaign is watching all the candidates other than Dean claim to be angry when they clearly aren’t. Lieberman just happens to be the least convincing of them. ‘I share the anger of my fellow Democrats,’ he croaks faintly. The impersonation is miserably weak. If you got into a fender bender with Dean, and he got out of his car and started walking toward you, you’d be afraid he was going to hit you. If, on the other hand, you looked up and saw that the guy approaching your car was Lieberman, you’d relax and roll down your window.”

So following Saletan’s analogy, America would feel much safer with a road-raging Dem than an old Jewish grandpa behind the nation’s wheel. As for the Jews themselves, Lieberman is doing well overall with Jewish donors, according to James Bessler of Northern California’s Jewish Bulletin, but is simply too conservative for many who comprise the Democratic Party’s liberal base — a base that’s crucial in the primaries.

For his part, Joe is trying to work the “I’m Jewish” card. He is hoping to pull in Jewish donors via the Jewish Americans For Joe section of his website. Joe asks his co-religionists to do 18 things for his campaign — a number that many Jews will recognize as the mystical number associated with the Hebrew characters for the word “chai” or life. Not too Jewish for the site’s gentile readers, but just Jewish enough to let insiders know that Joe’s campaign is, in fact, good for the Jews.

Despite all this careful planning, the analysts still aren’t crazy about Lieberman’s chances. America may soon be ready for a nice, Jewish White House — a recent Gallup pole found that America is willing to have a president “who happens to be” female, African American or Jewish. But despite such radical notions of presidential diversity, his reputation as the Republican in Democrat’s clothing may not actually help Lieberman win the Democratic primaries.


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