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What About Joe Lieberman?
July 30, 2003
By Raul Groom

Editor's Note: Democratic Underground welcomes articles promoting individual Democratic candidates for political office. Publication of these articles does not imply endorsement of any candidate by the editors of Democratic Underground.

American English is a weird tongue, and one can spend a great deal of time marveling at its peculiarities. Last week we all got a sniff of a particularly unusual category of English questions – those questions that can be answered not with another question but with the very same question. We were afforded this opportunity to ponder the quirks of our colonial dialect by the sudden appearance of DLC Muppet Joseph Lieberman on Katie Couric's political interview on NBC this morning.

Any respectable bull session on the subject of the upcoming 2004 Democratic primary race is bound to involve a mention of Holy Joe. The discussion usually starts with a superficial browsing through the electoral wardrobes of a couple of first-tier candidates, continuing blandly until someone feels the need to make a joke about Al Sharpton or handicap Dennis Kucinich's pleasantly maniacal charge up from the most obscure depths of the people's House.

We all laugh, unless of course we have the odd Green repatriate or Eddie Munster fanatic among us who tries to explain why Kucinich really could be President, in which case serious people quickly move the conversation towards some point of agreement, such as the question of why Dick Cheney appears to be in a constant state of puerile, arrogant rage.

The consensus, prevalent for some time and starting to appear prima facie reasonable, is that he gets bimonthly heart transplants cut from the chests of men George W. Bush executes. The symbiosis keeps Dick alive (and, of course, keeps George on the wagon), but there are side effects to running around in secret underground tunnels with the heart of a depraved murderer splashing between your lungs.

If we get past all that, though, someone will eventually ask the question.

JoeFan1 – What about Joe Lieberman?

[a beat as the degenerates wipe rum and coke off the display]

SanePerson – What about Joe Lieberman?

Neither question is a question really, but more of a ritual obligation, like carrying the crumbs of broken communion wafers back to the tabernacle instead of just tossing them in the trash. It's not like they're going to be returned to Jesus or anything, but people just don't feel right about things unless it's done.

Alternating between whining about President Bush's slightly objectionable undermining of U.S. "credibility" in Iraq and braying about a planned whistle-stop tour apparently titled Why George Bush Was Not Wrong to Oust the Evil Saddam To Make the World Safe, so Stop Saying That, Lieberman on today's Today was the physical embodiment of this linguistic phenomenon – the question seems valid enough at first, but a cursory review reveals its inherent irrelevance.

It's not hard to imagine why someone would want to vote for Joe. He seems a nice enough guy, and too heartbreakingly earnest in his ridiculousness to be truly corrupt. He's the guy who feels obligated to run, because he knows he's better than Bush but can't quite say why, for fear of offending people. On the one hand it's admirable for Joe to be out there promising to finally make good on Bush's own promise to restore honor and integrity to the White House - because he could really do it – but an experienced handicapper knows that taking even 100-1 odds on Joe at this point would be more charity than gambling. Joe can't win, and deep down you can see that he knows it.

There is an important role to be played by such a candidate, however - the role of gatekeeper. Just as a young boxer has to beat up a couple of career also-rans to get a shot at the Champ, so will any 2004 Democratic hopeful will be expected to raise a few welts on Lieberman's hangdog mug before donning the blue mantle and girding for battle with the Rove machine. That's why it's OK for Joe to keep right on chugging, and I hope he even raises a little money, in the same way that I still root for Merciless Ray Mercer despite the fact that his chances of ever being champion are similar to Henry Kissinger's chances of receiving a lifetime achievement award from Amnesty International. You can't have a race without a pace car to slow things down when there's a little too much rubbing going on in the straightaways.

Once we're done with the extended mixed metaphor that is the Lieberman campaign, we can turn our attention to more important matters. Some folks will tell you that you can't handicap a primary this early, but these people have no sense of adventure. The only time a race is worth handicapping is before too much of the confused, sleepy-eyed electorate gets wind that there's some sort of election coming up. After that, it's merely about keeping one's finger up to feel the wind, reading polls and talking to random idiots on the street about which candidate is most likely to be a secret fart-huffer.

The only thing to analyze at this stage is strategy. The tactics come later, when the money is flowing like Box-O-Wine at a college graduation, and the candidates who are still in it have that rheumy look in their eyes like they've been training for a triathlon in Ecuador and sleeping on a bed of broken glass. At that point, the candidates themselves are secondary, reduced to second-rate commercial actors carrying out the whims of better-rested, palefaced political people with bad teeth and serious personality disorders. By the time the election is close enough to call, it's all up to God and Zogby, and maybe a handful of eccentric billionaires pulling strings behind the scenes, just for the hell of it.

Now that Lieberman has set up shop on the musty-smelling right edge of the Democratic encampment, he offers a great deal of coverage to John Kerry, whose credentials as a bleeding-heart liberal would certainly leave something to be desired in a saner time, if such a thing has really ever existed. No one will ouflank Lieberman to the right, though, and Kerry's people have to be encouraged by the fact that John’s starboard side is threatened only by a failed VP candidate who took one of the worst screw-jobs in the history of U.S. presidential elections lying down.

Indeed, despite Howard Dean’s uppity fundraising behavior, the smart money is all on Kerry and it isn’t moving. His team is solid gold, and Campaign JFK has shown the ability to make news without really saying or doing anything remarkable – an indispensable attribute in the presidential primary race, whose early running order is determined mostly by name recognition. This is not to say Dean doesn’t have a shot – the path from Governor’s Mansion to Oval Office is a well trodden one, and men with far less business running a global superpower have gone from Governor to Mr. President before. Some of them have even won the presidential election, but even that’s no longer considered a prerequisite.

Unfortunately for Dean, though, his offensive arsenal is dwindling as Kerry quickly shores up his base on the subject of Iraq by calling to get U.S. troops out of the Gulf before things get really nasty. Though the promise has a whiff of LBJ to it, it’s clearly caught the Dean people off guard, as Howard has yet to come up with anything better than "send more troops," a policy which is starting to look about as politically and logistically prudent as a manned mission to the sun. Add to that the fact that Kerry has access to a lot more information on the subject of Bush's alleged deliberations on the subject of war, and Dean's key weapon - Kerry's vote in favor of the invasion - starts to look a lot more like a Super Soaker than a Magnum.

We’re looking, then, at a two-horse race that may or may not actually involve a second horse. The next two months will be crucial for Dean as Kerry looks to shore up his already solid position and the rest of the candidates frantically plead for cash from people who are bound to know that they’re only buying influence from a future former presidential candidate. If Dean for America can’t find a chink in the Kerry armor, it won’t be long until we’re hearing the phrase "What about Howard Dean?" twice in a row, like the echo of a dry cough in a campaign HQ after everyone has gone home. He'll have the satisfaction of knowing he came by his seat on the 727 to political limbo honestly, but that won't make Howard's shrink-wrapped salisbury steak taste any better than Joe Lieberman's.

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