Of all the elections that have occurred since the end of 2004, the only one I can think of that offers much encouragement to John McCain is Joe Lieberman’s re-election to the Senate. This result suggests that, at least as of November 2006, a pro-war candidate can win over moderate and even some liberal voters if that candidate is considered independent and if he commands respect on a personal level. Like Lieberman, McCain answers to that description.
With this in mind, I traveled to New York on Sunday to hear Sen. Lieberman deliver the annual Norman Podhoretz lecture at the Commentary Fund dinner. Some expressed surprise that the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000 was presenting this particular lecture. But there has never been a disconnect between Lieberman and Commentary and its core readership on the issues that matter most to both.
In the first part of his lecture, Lieberman went further to argue that until 2001, the Democratic party as a whole was at least as much in accord with the Commentary position on national security as the Republican party. Lieberman acknowledged that this was not true in the 1970s and 1980s, but he argued that during the Clinton administration, the party moved decidedly back towards its FDR/JFK roots (as much as could be expected in the aftermath of victory in the Cold War) to stand for a strong national defense and a freedom-promoting foreign policy. And he insisted that the Gore-Lieberman campaign was actually better in these respects than candidate Bush was in 2000.
Lieberman overstated his case. Nonetheless, I think his fundamental point is correct – it was only after 9/11 that the Democrats openly re-embraced the McGovern-Carter approach to national security and foreign policy.
Why? In his introduction, Lieberman suggested that a psychological explanation is required. Unfortunately, he never provided one. Instead, he blamed the Democrats’ desire to gain partisan advantage. Understandably, Lieberman underestimates how cynical and insincere his party’s feints during the 1990s towards a serious hard-line on national defense actually were.
Lieberman concluded his remarks by explaining why he supports McCain for president. I was pleasantly surprised that his case included an uncompromising, though not strident, critique of Barack Obama. I came away thinking how lovely it would be if, somehow, Lieberman were to make his case – calm, rational, and broadly appealing — for McCain and against Obama on television during the Republican National Convention.
UPDATE: Sen. Lieberman adapted his lecture for publication in today’s Wall Street Journal.