McCain's Unlikely Standard-Bearer

Lieberman Emphasizes Nonpartisanship, Calling on Voters to Make the Best Choice

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who is now an Independent, spoke at the Republican National Convention. He criticized his former party's nominee as an untested candidate unwilling to challenge powerful interest groups. Video by AP
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- Time best tells the story of Joe Lieberman, who has watched his political career swiftly rise and sag and settle uneasily into a place of uncertainty.

Just eight years ago, he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee, summoning the ghost of John F. Kennedy at his party's convention and lacerating Republicans on the issues of education, the environment, health care and campaign finance reform. He was interrupted constantly by chants of "Go Joe, go! Go Joe, go!"

On Tuesday night, he mounted the stage at the other party's convention to issue a brief on behalf of his friend John McCain. No longer the same partisan Democrat, and not a member of the GOP family, Joe Lieberman was now an outsider looking in, an independent senator from Connecticut whose role was to bolster McCain's credentials as a maverick unafraid to shake up the status quo.

The delegates at Xcel Energy Center greeted him warmly, standing and whistling. It must have been odd for Lieberman to bat cleanup at a convention that was not his own, slotted in the order behind the president of the United States and a former Republican senator, Fred Thompson, who showcased his acting skills not only to burnish McCain's character but rile the crowd.

He did not pull a Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who excoriated John Kerry at the 2004 GOP convention. While Lieberman did criticize Barack Obama -- "eloquence is no substitute for a record" -- he focused his remarks on lifting up McCain and the ideal of nonpartisanship. Standing there alone onstage, Lieberman didn't look especially comfortable.

"What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?" And then he answered the question. "I'm here tonight for a simple reason: John McCain is the best choice to bring the country together and lead America forward. And I'm here because John McCain's full life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or a Republican is important. But it is not more important than being an American."

While the delegates certainly seemed to enjoy the testimony about the need for politicians to work together, they were roused to their feet every time Lieberman scored a political point, whether taking on Obama's position on the surge or defending McCain against his opponents' critiques.

"Don't be fooled by some of these political statements and advertisements," he said. "Trust me: God only made one John McCain, and he is his own man."

So valuable and trusted has Lieberman become that McCain seriously considered picking him as his running mate.

"I thought he was a good choice," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), his chief advocate with McCain, who ultimately was steered away from Lieberman, only to roll the dice with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Graham said he did not "buy into the narrative" that choosing Lieberman would have exploded the convention and would have been disastrous going forward. "It would have created difficulties and opportunities," Graham acknowledged. And so Lieberman was left to praise Palin as "a great lady" and reformer who takes on special interests.

Lieberman's speech was being watched closely by Democrats, many of whom have had enough of Joe Lieberman. Renegade Joe, he's been called. Turncoat Joe. Good-riddance Joe. The bad feelings have been hardening for several years. Lieberman was a sponsor of the Iraq war resolution in the Senate, and when his support of the war caused him to lose his Democratic primary race for reelection in 2006, he decided to run as an independent and kept his seat. Though he continues to caucus in the Senate with Democrats, the grumbling about Lieberman has intensified this campaign season, as he has been a regular traveling companion and outspoken surrogate for McCain.

There has been talk that Lieberman might be booted out of the caucus and stripped of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, should Democrats pick up six or more seats in this year's election and boost their narrow margin in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has said that no decisions about Lieberman will be made until next year, but the Democrat was not pleased with Tuesday night's performance. "Senator Reid was very disappointed in Senator Lieberman's speech tonight, especially when he appeared to go out of his way to distort Senator Obama's record of bipartisan achievements in the Senate," Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman, said by e-mail. "He can give all the partisan speeches he wants, but as the American people have made very clear, the last thing this country needs is another four years of the same old failed Bush-McCain policies of the past."

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