Picking the wrong fight

If there is one major politician who strikes fear into the heart of Barack Obama, it is Joe Lieberman, who has emerged as a primary surrogate for John McCain in this campaign. It isn’t just that Lieberman is so highly regarded by a small but not insignificant number of Democrats and a decent number of independents. It’s because Lieberman successfully executed something like the model John McCain hopes to use in this election to defeat a leftist opponent in the fact of a heavy pro-Democrat tide.

Specifically, Lieberman was able to rely on his popular “brand,” including his reputation for independence, to defeat a leftist Democrat in a liberal state despite his staunch support for a very unpopular war (today, almost two years later, the war is merely unpopular). This is essentially what McCain hopes to accomplish. Although McCain lacks Lieberman’s consistently liberal record on domestic issues (and for that reason won’t carry Connecticut), he’s making a good run so far at eroding Obama’s support among independents and Hillary Clinton-supporting Democrats.

Obama isn’t amused. Accordingly, the candidate, with substantial help from his boosters at Newsweek, have attacked Lieberman. As Mark Hemmingway explains an Obama aide told Newsweek that Obama confronted Lieberman on the Senate floor over his “personal attacks and his half-hearted denials of the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim.” In the aide’s account, Lieberman was “strangely muted” during the exchange.

According to Hemmingway, Newsweek reported the Obama campaign’s self-serving tale without bothering to check with Lieberman’s office. A Lieberman spokesman says that the Obama aides characterization of the private conversation (which in itself would seem to violate norms of Senate comity) is “entirely false and fabricated.”

Joe Lieberman’s credibility with key portions of the Jewish community and with what’s left of the “Scoop Jackson” wing of the Democratic party is rock solid, founded as it is on more than 20 years of advocacy. Barack Obama’s credibility with this community has yet to be established. Picking a personal fight with Lieberman is not the way to establish it.

UPDATE: It would be interesting to know what Obama and his flunky mean by “muted” in the context of Lieberman’s response to Obama’s attack on him. Perhaps that’s the closest they can come to describing gentlemanly conduct that’s consistent with Senate norms. In any case, dueling is outlawed.

It’s also interesting to see Obama resort once again to the “I am not Muslim” defense to criticism about his ever-shifting positions on the Middle East and Israel. Lieberman has never said that Obama is a Muslim, nor (to my knowledge) has any other serious public figure, and it’s not up to Lieberman vigorously to defend Obama from a charge that no serious person believes.

Obama’s statement that he’s not a Muslim is probably the only position remotely of interest to some who worry about terrorism and the fate of Israel that Obama has been consistent in maintaining. Perhaps that’s why he wants to pretend that misconceptions about his religion, as opposed to doubts about his substantive views (whatever they may be at a given moment), are what is hurting him among voters who like Lieberman.

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