Lieberman's Honor System

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In New Hampshire last week, Joe Lieberman aired his first television ad of the campaign, and it is an odd one. He's sitting in a diner, speaking directly to the camera—and he announces that he voted for the President's $87 billion funding request for Iraq, even though it was probably too much money. "That's the price we're paying because George Bush antagonized our allies and had no plan to win the peace," he says. "But we had to make a choice. I didn't duck it. I didn't play politics ... Leadership means doing what's right even when it's not easy."

I can't remember the last time a candidate for President opened an advertising blitz by touting a position he has taken that is highly unpopular within his party. Usually it's a gauzy bio spot—Joe Lieberman was born in a log cabin in Stamford, Conn.—or crisp advocacy of an apple-pie issue like education. This ad not only highlights Lieberman's unpopular vote for the $87 billion but also reminds voters of his even more controversial (among Democrats) support for the war. Why do it, then? Because integrity is about the only card Lieberman has left to play in his droopy, if honorable, campaign.

There is a grand, bipartisan New Hampshire tradition of truth-telling Jeremiahs taking the state by storm, from Estes Kefauver in 1952 to John McCain in 2000, but Lieberman seems to be a classic case of honor without profit. For one thing, Howard Dean locked up the maverick vote with his timely opposition to the war. For another, Lieberman's belief that removing Saddam Hussein would start a benign chain of events in the region seems imprudent now, given the deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq. But there's something else about Lieberman—a sweet, soft, caramel quality—that makes him an unlikely firebrand. Even when he attacks his opponents, as he has done quite effectively in debates, he does it in a grandfatherly, remorseful manner. There is no meanness to the man.

It seems clear that Joe Lieberman is not going to win this nomination. He has pulled out of Iowa. He has dropped to the bottom of the plausible contenders in the New Hampshire polls. His lone hope is to catch fire as the alternative to Howard Dean in the second wave of primaries—in states like South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma, where moderate voters abide—but John Edwards, and perhaps Wesley Clark seem more likely candidates for that role. Still, Lieberman's candidacy has instructional value on two grounds: his courage has made plain the cowardice of his opponents, and his faded policy positions have illuminated the waning of the Democrats' once vibrant moderate wing.

Lieberman has been booed more frequently than any of his opponents this year, which is a badge of honor in these days of furiously massaged political messages. He has supported free trade and school vouchers, and he has excoriated Hollywood for its excesses. Leave aside the wisdom of these positions; his willingness to take them stands in stark relief to, say, the candidacy of John Kerry, who has claimed "courage" as his theme and managed to take not a single inconvenient or unfudged position on any issue in this campaign. It also stands in contrast to Dean's furious backpedaling from earlier and wiser positions on old-age-entitlement reform and affirmative action. (Dean once said preferences should be granted on the basis of economic status rather than race.)

Dean's campaign, however feckless, has a freshness that Lieberman's lacks—it's the most energetic Democratic candidacy since Bill Clinton's in 1992. But Clinton's freshness came in part from an attaché case of new ideas provided by creative policy thinkers from the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Lieberman is the DLC candidate this time; he has offered solid policy proposals but nothing really compelling, which may reflect the emptiness of the New Democratic cupboard. The DLC has succumbed to a sadly familiar political disease: a reliance on polling rather than thinking. Last year DLC chairman Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana told Fox News that polling showed the public trusted Republicans more on matters of national security, "and I think we need to work to improve our image on that score by taking a more aggressive posture with regard to Iraq."

Joe Lieberman would never say anything so crass. His support for the war is a matter of principle, as is every other position he has taken in this campaign—and so there is no joy in watching his dignified slide toward the back of the pack. At St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., last week, a student asked Lieberman about his greatest personal success and failure. I've seen politicians for many years answer such questions with incandescently phony candor. Lieberman, embarrassed, said, "Let me think for a minute." He began a standard biographical spiel. "I haven't forgotten your question," he said a few minutes later. And then finally, "I can't answer your question. My personal successes and failures are just too personal."