ST. PAUL – The most militantly conservative Republican National Convention in the history of the republic cheered itself hoarse Tuesday night for a pro-choice, pro-civil rights, pro-labor, pro-environment champion of anti-global warming initiatives who hailed the accomplishments of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Such are the vagaries of this strangest of all national conventions that it was a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus who finally focused the attention and energy of the gathering on the campaign to prevail in what he described as “no ordinary election.”
And such are the vagaries of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s strangest of all political journeys that the man who just eight years ago accepted the Democratic nomination for the vice presidency on Tuesday night, endorsed a Republican candidate for president with whom Lieberman disagrees on many issues and a Republican candidate for vice president with whom he disagrees on almost every issue.
What gives? It comes down, pretty much, to Iraq.
Lieberman, who serves as an independent but identified himself to the delegates as a Democrat, shares McCain’s commitment to the neo-conservative approach to foreign policy that McCain suggests may require a hundred year commitment to the occupation of the Middle Eastern land.
“What we need most is not more party unity in America but more national unity! Especially at a time of war, we need a President we can count on to fight for what’s right for our country — not only when it is easy, but when it is hard,” argued Lieberman. “When others were silent, John McCain had the judgment to sound the alarm about the mistakes we were making in Iraq. When others wanted to retreat in defeat from the field of battle, when Barack Obama was voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground, John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion and support the surge, and because of that, today, our troops are at last beginning to come home, not in failure, but in honor!”
While that statement was inaccurate – Obama never voted “to cut off funding for our troops on the ground” – it was the applause line of the night.
The delegates, alternates and assorted hangers-on loved Lieberman not just for endorsing their ticket but for attacking the Democratic standard-bearer. The senator had once declared that he would not attack Obama – a colleague who barely two years ago identified Lieberman as his political mentor – did not hesitate to echo McCain campaign talking points about the Democrat’s supposed inexperience.
“Sen. Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” Lieberman said. “But eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times.”
For all of Lieberman’s talk about how “country matters more than party,” it was the red-meat partisanship of his unblinking endorsement of his friend and neo-conservative “soul-mate” McCain but his unapologetic embrace of Palin that wowed the crowd.
“It’s not like Joe Lieberman is just one of 100 senators. This was the pick of the Democrats for the vice presidency just eight years ago,” said Laurie Forcier, the chairman of the Eau Claire County Republican Party in western Wisconsin. “His knowledge of foreign affairs, his knowledge of intelligence, is why Al Gore picked him for the Democratic ticket in 2000. And, now, here he is saying that Barack Obama is just not ready to be president.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, offered another variation on the sentiment. “Lieberman was, after all, the nominee for vice president with Al Gore. And here he is saying Barack Obama is wrong on the issues, wrong for America. That’s remarkable.”
Perhaps the most remarkable moment in Lieberman’s address — which capped a night that saw President Bush address the convention via a video link while former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson cleared his throat 70 times while choking out a recollection of McCain’s POW history – came when the Connecticut senator told Republicans who despise all things Clinton that Obama compares unfavorably with the last Democratic president.
After suggesting that “Obama 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,” Lieberman – who famously condemned Clinton’s sexual irresponsibility in 1998 – told the Republicans that “the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton… 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.”
The delegates did not quite know what to do.
They were not inclined to hail a reference to Bill Clinton.
But they wanted to cheer an attack on Barack Obama.
So they applauded the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president for putting his neo-conservatism ahead of his party.
It wasn’t bipartisanship that excited the conventioneers. It was the fact that the man Democrats once nominated for vice president was mouthing Republican talking points.
“We worked hard to beat Joe Lieberman eight years ago,” said delegate Laurie Forcier. “But now we love Joe Lieberman because he’s working with us to beat the Democrats this year.”