Partying with Joe Lieberman

Thursday (July 31) I attended my first meet-the-candidate house party. State Representative Bette Lasky held the party for Senator Joe Lieberman. She and her husband live in a large ranch house in southwest Nashua’s labyrinth of subdivisions. They have a large deck behind the house, and their back yard borders wooded conservation land.

Like all the evening campaign events I’ve attended, the candidate was late. The party started at 6:30, and the Senator didn’t appear until 7:30. But this had to be the most pleasant wait I’ve had yet. It was a beautiful, cool evening, and various cheese and fruit snacks were available, in addition to beer and wine (which I avoided so that I’d be able to remember what the candidate had to say). As in any good suburban party, I met interesting people.

John Casson, for example. He works for the British government, and his job is to keep the Foreign Office apprised of developments in American politics. We compared notes. I told him my conclusions about the candidates I had seen so far and the race in general, and then I asked him whether Tony Blair was going to be able to ride out the current crisis. He said yes. Blair doesn’t have to hold an election for another three years unless he loses a vote-of-confidence in Parliament, and Casson doesn’t see that happening. The Tories supported his Labor government on the Iraq war, and too many of the Labor MP’s owe their seats to Blair. So even though most of the people are outraged about the war – Casson put that percentage at 60% in Britain compared to maybe 25% here – it will be hard to translate that outrage into a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

I hung around Casson for a while because he was trying to do the same thing I was: get a sense of the crowd. We met our hostess, and John asked how she came to be hosting the event. She said that all the candidates had asked for her support – not their staffs, the candidates themselves – and that she had chosen Lieberman because she thought he had the best chance to beat Bush. She said that she was probably more liberal than Lieberman, but she admired his integrity and values.

I recognized Siobahn Cornwall from the Kucinich event I attended in Manchester. She was the perky young blond woman wearing the “Health Care Voter” t-shirt. The Health Care Voter organization tries to cover all the campaign events. I took her brochure and asked her how many campaign events she has been to. She said she had been doing about five a week for the past three months.

There were only two African-Americans, a 20-something man and his cute 3-year-old son, in a crowd of about 80. (Casson and I had both counted 70, but people continued to trickle in late. A Dean houseparty in the same neighborhood two days later drew over 300.) Whiteness isn’t something you can hold against a crowd in New Hampshire, of course, because there aren’t many blacks here to begin with. (In the Dean crowd I think only the host family was black.) But I thought it would be interesting to find out who this guy was and why he was here. I never caught his name, but (like so many of us, apparently) he was here to report on the event; he was covering it for his college newspaper.

For the most part, the conversations were the same you would hear at any suburban party. Many of the people appeared to know each other, and they were talking about their children or their health. The few political conversations I heard were among campaign-event junkies rather than committed Lieberman supporters. I ran into three different people who had considered going to the Kerry event in Dover the previous evening.

Lieberman in Person

Joe Lieberman arrived around 7:30, and slowly worked his way through the crowd. Several people wanted to have their pictures taken with him, and he obliged as if he had nothing better to do in the world. (However hard they try, most other candidates seem to be in a hurry when they work a crowd.) Eventually he made it to the deck, which served as his podium. The hostess introduced him, saying more-or-less the same things she had told Casson about his integrity and values. The Senator talked for about twenty minutes and took questions for twenty more. He hung around talking to individuals who clustered around him after the talk, and seemed prepared to stay as long as their were people who wanted to meet him. I left when the mosquitoes came out around 8:30.

I had come with a bias against Lieberman. He’s probably the most conservative of the Democratic candidates. He supported (and continues to support) the Iraq war, he voted for the Patriot Act, he has a piecemeal approach to health care, and he would not roll back all of the Bush tax cuts. He is the candidate who most clearly represents the occupy-the-center strategy that gave the Green Party its fateful opportunity on the left in 2000. His supporters always make the point that our hostess had made: Even if he isn’t as liberal as we are, we need somebody like Lieberman to beat Bush. (Lieberman closed his remarks with: “I know I can beat George Bush because Al Gore and I already did. Whenever I meet people who worked on that campaign I tell them, ‘Without your support, we might have lost that election.’” Unlike Gore, Lieberman is able to play this card humorously, without seeming like a sore loser.) I came into the evening wondering not whether I should vote for Lieberman in the primary, but whether I could vote for him in the general election if he gets the nomination.

What can I say? He charmed me. If you’re in your 20’s and your new girlfriend wants to introduce you to her father, the guy you’re hoping to meet is Joe Lieberman. He radiates kindness and reasonableness, and makes such a welcome contrast with President Bush’s macho, shoot-from-the-hip attitude. (As he puts it: “George Bush got elected claiming to be a compassionate conservative, but since then he’s spent most of his time conserving his compassion.”) He wears his experience well. In person, John Edwards comes off as the smart kid who knows the answers because he was up all night cramming. Howard Dean’s face freezes for a moment while he thinks about what to say. John Kerry works a little too hard to let you know that he was there when the important decisions were made. But when you ask Lieberman a question, his answer flows effortlessly out of his personal history with the issue.

The downside of his persona is that he completely lacks charisma. I have a hard time picturing him giving an acceptance speech that fires up the convention for the fall campaign.

The Message

Senator Lieberman’s message and his strategy for beating Bush are inseparable: “We’re going to take him on where he’s supposed to be strong – foreign policy, values, and homeland security – and beat him where he’s weak: on the economy, health care, and the environment.” His fundamental charge against Bush is mismanagement: “George Bush has mismanaged our economy, our homeland security, and our relations with the rest of the world.”

He is unapologetic about supporting the war in Iraq, though no one asked which of the administration’s shifting rationales for war had convinced him. In a speech I found on his web site (given just days before) he said, “Nothing we have learned since the end of the conflict should make us doubt whether we were right to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein and protect America and the rest of the world from his aggression.” He went on to comment on Bush’s exageration of the evidence against Iraq: “By compromising the truth, the Bush administration has encouraged those who have been spreading lies about our motives in Iraq.”

On values, Lieberman said: “I won’t let the Republicans make us out as the anti-values, anti-faith, anti-patriotic party.” In the 2000 campaign it sometimes seemed as if Lieberman couldn’t order a cup of coffee without mentioning God or his Jewish faith, but he seems to have toned that down. I suspect he'll turn it back up again if he’s nominated.

On homeland security, Lieberman’s criticism of Bush really seems to have teeth. His claim is that the administration has actually done very little to make us safer. It dragged its feet on establishing the Homeland Security Department (cosponsored by Lieberman and Republican Senator Arlen Spector). It still hasn’t resolved the interagency communication problems that kept the FBI and CIA from working together to prevent the 9/11 attack. And it hasn’t put money where it counts most: in funding the local police, fire, and public health departments that will bear the brunt of any new attack. “It is clear,” he said in the web site speech “that our first responders don’t have what they need to safeguard us from the new threats. ... The Bush administration offers mostly words but too little real support.”

On the economy, he attacked the administration for being “fiscally irresponsible” and for losing 3.1 million jobs, including 2.4 million manufacturing jobs. Lieberman boldly declared: “I believe I can restore prosperity to this country.” No one asked him how, but the plan on his web site tries to steer a path that is neither laissez-faire or protectionist. In a July 18 speech he focused on unfair competition from China. The “unfair” part is that the Chinese don’t give their workers the kind of rights we do, and that they don’t allow their currency to find its true value on the international market. (He estimates that the Chinese yuan is about 40% undervalued.) Presumably, he would threaten the Chinese with tariffs to get them to change these policies, but would hope not to have to impose the tariffs (which would be “protectionist”.) This plan strikes me as far too technical to make any impression on the American public, but it does address the correct issues – which no one else is doing so far.

His approach to health care is basically what Al Gore proposed in 2000: Universal health insurance is a long-term goal, but should be approached piecemeal. The first piece is to cover all children by allowing parents to buy into the Medicaid program at a subsidized rate. (I dislike the piecemeal approach, but I love this first step. I’d like to see Democratic candidates all over the country challenge their Republican opponents to tell us which children should be denied health care.)

Lieberman mentioned a bipartisan bill on global warming (the Climate Stewardship Act) which he and John McCain have proposed, but so far haven’t been able to get the Senate to vote on. I have not examined the details, but it involves some kiind of market-based approach for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, probably something similar to the system that allows power plants to buy and sell pollution credits. This, like his trade policy, is not sexy but makes a lot of sense.

Security and Liberty

When the question period started, I asked the same thing I asked Kerry and Edwards: “Like almost everyone else in the Senate, you voted for the Patriot Act. How do you feel about that vote now?” Like Kerry, Lieberman pointed to the bill’s sunset clause: It will expire in 2005 unless renewed by Congress. (Unlike Kerry, Lieberman gave Vermont’s Senator Pat Leahy credit for inserting that clause.) He said that parts of the bill were necessary and should be renewed, but that parts of it were an unnecessary surrender of liberty and should be allowed to die. “In America there is always a tension between security and liberty. But at the end of the day, because we are Americans, we have to come down on the side of liberty.”

As an example of what should be renewed, he said that the CIA and FBI should be allowed to maintain a unified watch list of suspected terrorists. He said it was “tantalizing to wonder” if September 11 could have been prevented by such an interagency list. (He pointed out that such a list still does not exist, and once again blamed the administration for being slow to address the real issues raised by 9/11. He quoted former Senator Warren Rudman, a popular and respected New Hampshire Republican, as saying that we are still “dangerously unprepared” for another terrorist attack.) As an example of provisions that should be allowed to die, he mentioned the government’s power to examine the library records of citizens not suspected of any crime. “That’s not how we do things in America.”

Lieberman denounced the government’s rounding up of “eight hundred Arabs or people who looked like Arabs” in the wake of 9/11. “That’s the easy thing for a government to do. The hard thing would have been to reform the CIA, which failed us.”

Other questioners expressed fears about the threat of terrorism while flying, concerns about the cost of prescription drugs, and the shortage of nurses and other public health professionals. A older woman a few feet away from me said her prescriptions cost $25,000 a year. Lieberman said that the Bush prescription drug plan wasn’t as comprehensive as he’d like, but he voted for it in the Senate because it would provide a needed benefit starting in 2006. “I could be dead by then,” the woman responded.

Can I support him?

Not in the primary. For me, the war is still a major sticking point. Lieberman has adopted the administration terminology wholesale, talking about the “liberation” of Iraq and the threat posed by Saddam. I also believe that President Bush has been allowed to cast an image (as a straight-shooting, honest, compassionate, everyday guy) that is totally false, and we’re not going to beat him by being nice and letting him keep pretending to be a great guy.

The biggest issue in the Democratic primary right now, I think, is neither the war nor the economy, but how Democrats should present themselves to the world. Lieberman and Edwards clearly believe that we should continue the Clinton/Gore strategy of occupying the center, even if we have to give up important parts of our philosophy to get there. This used to make sense to me, but I can’t help wondering how the Republicans manage to win elections. They stick to their philosophy, stay to the right, and for some reason people who disagree with them on the issues vote for them anyway.

I think I’d like to try that strategy. The biggest problem of the Democratic Party, I think, isn’t that we’re too far left on the issues. The biggest problem is that the public doesn’t respect our party. The public has caught on to this shift-to-the-center strategy, and the result is that they don’t trust Democrats, even when they seem to be saying the right things.

I think the way to win is to stop being so afraid to lose. What the public wonders about us is: “What do they believe in badly enough to lose for?” If we won’t put forward any position that we think might be unpopular, how will it ever become popular? There are large chunks of the electorate that have never heard a real Democratic message, because we’ve been too cowardly to put one out there. I don’t know whether we can win this time or not, but I think the first step has to be winning back the respect of the public.

That said, what if Lieberman or someone like him wins the nomination? Can I compromise that much, or should I go Green or look for some other party to vote for? Lieberman convinced me this much: If he’s nominated, I’ll vote for him.


While Lieberman had been talking, three guys wearing suits – two of them having necks wider than their heads, one with an earpiece – had stood on the edge of the crowd. On my way out I said to one of them, “This is the first campaign event where I’ve spotted the security people.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he answered.

As I walked around the side of the house, a woman called to me from behind. She introduced herself as Kat Seelye from The New York Times. A few days later, on page A12 of the August 5 edition, I achieved the ambition of pundits everywhere: I got quoted in The Times. She even spelled my name right.

Epilogue II

The same morning that I put my Dennis Kucinich piece up on my web site, I got a phone call from Richard Grossman, who had introduced Kucinich at the Manchester event. I was afraid Grossman might resent that I had described him as resembling the liberal father in Family Ties, but he wanted to talk about trade policy – the biggest reason why I said I couldn’t support Kucinich.

We talked for about 45 minutes, and (from my point of view, at least) the conversation got wackier and wackier. Kucinich had denounced the NAFTA and WTO trade agreements, partly because they infringe on America’s ability to set its own standards for products. Grossman took this notion a step further: He’s against the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution because it similarly infringes on the ability of local governments to do things like ban genetically modified foods. I was seeing images of an America where you had to have your car inspected every twenty miles because you had crossed into a new county. Eventually I realized what corner I was being backed into, so I owned up to my dark secret. “You’ve got me there,” I confessed. “I support the Constitution.”

Doug Muder

5 August 2003

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