George W. Bush has a new favorite senator: Joe Lieberman.
As part of his "I've-Got-a-Secret-Plan-That's-Just-As-Good-As-Nixon's" stump tour to shore up sagging support for his war in Iraq, the president has been talking up the Connecticut Democrat as just about the only official outside the administration who "gets it."
In his December 7 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bush was quoting Lieberman -- a Vietnam war foe who eluded military service every bit as efficiently as did Vice President Dick Cheney -- as if the senator was a modern-day Carl von Clausewitz. Recalling Lieberman's most recent pro-war outburst -- "What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will, and, in a famous phrase, 'to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory'" -- the president declared: "Senator Lieberman is right."
Lieberman's over-the-top cheerleading for a war gone wrong has been just about the only good news that Bush has gotten on the domestic political front in recent weeks, and the president and his supporters are playing the senator's support for everything that it is worth. There is even speculation that Bush might pluck Lieberman from the Senate and award him a Cabinet post -- perhaps as Donald Rumsfeld's replacement at the Department of Defense.
Whatever Lieberman's poliutical trajectory may be, there is no question that it is being the cheered from the right.
Rare is the afternoon when Rush Limbaugh does not mention Lieberman's "courageous" support for the war on his radio show. Rarer still is the evening when the Democratic senator is not giggling along with Sean Hannity as Fox's propagandist-in-chief derides war critics as dupes, cowards and traitors. Hannity has gone so far as to announce that he will support Lieberman for reelection. And it is a reasonably safe bet that Lieberman will not face a serious challenge from the Republican right when he seeks reelection in 2006.
After all, this Democratic senator has a long track record of delivering for the conservative movement. Elected to the Senate in 1988 with the support of William F. Buckley and Buckley's National Review magazine, Lieberman has regularly sided with the Republican establishment on everything from trade policy to military misadventures. He has, as well, been Joey-on-the-spot when George W. Bush has needed an election ally.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Lieberman, who was then the party's vice presidential nominee, parted company with his running mate, Al Gore, to tell the Wall Street Journal that Gore's populist rhetoric wasn't serious. Don't take Gore seriously, Lieberman promised, Democrats could be counted on to deliver for corporate America.
During the Florida recount fight of that year, Lieberman told Democrats to back off their challenges to Republican efforts to count votes that were cast late or illegally.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, after Democrats had overwhelmingly rejected Lieberman's candidacy for their party's nomination, the senator traveled to the battleground state of Florida three weeks before the election and told a predominantly Jewish crowd in Delray Beach that criticism of Bush's Middle East policies were "unjustified." "We are dealing with a president who's had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel," Lieberman argued. "You can't say otherwise."
It's a safe bet that Bush will return the favor next year, making friendly statements about Lieberman at appropriate moments during the senator's reelection race.
Presumably, in a state that voted 54-44 for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and where the president's approval rating has fallen to an abysmal 32 percent in recent polling, Bush's enthusiasm for Lieberman is something less than a plus for the Democrat.
But for Lieberman to be beat, he will have to have an opponent.
Despite a good deal of grumbling from Connecticut Democrats, as well as some national prodding from MoveOn,org, Democracy for America and other groups that want the Democrats to offer a choice rather than an echo, Lieberman does not face a serious Democratic primary challenge going into the 2006 election season. And, since Connecticut is not a state with a strong tradition of intraparty fights, Lieberman could well dodge the primary defeat he so richly deserves.
But that does not mean that the president's favorite senator will go without a serious anti-war challenge.
Former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, the Republican incumbent Lieberman narrowly beat in 1988, is talking seriously about taking the senator on next year. And Weicker would run as an anti-war candidate.
"I disagree 100 percent with the position (Lieberman''s) taken on this war. It mirrors that of the president, and obviously I disagree with the president," says Weicker, who adds, "I am interested in the war. I am interested in putting heat on people that continue to put us in the position that we're in in Iraq."
To be clear, Weicker, who is 74 and serves as president of the Trust for America's Health, would prefer to see someone else take on Lieberman. But, he says, he'll run if no one else does because he thinks it is so essential to challenge the senator's support of the war.
It would be wrong to see a Weicker campaign as a protest vehicle, however. Weicker remains a respected and potentially viable political player in Connecticut -- and nationally. After he was defeated in 1988, he turned around and won the governorship as the candidate of his independent "A Connecticut Party" in 1990. And, as recently as 2000, he was encouraged to run for the presidency on the Reform Party line.
What makes Weicker so appealing is that he is genuine maverick. As a Republican senator, he was a leading critic of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He supported civil rights and civil liberties, stood up for abortion rights and gay rights, backed campaign finance and ethics reforms, voted against right-wing judicial picks, condemned Nixon as the Watergate scandals were revealed and aggressively attacked Reagan and his aides for their Iran-Contra crimes.
When Weicker served in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a good many moderate Republicans, and even some liberal members of the Grand Old Party. It is a measure of how far American politics has moved to the right that, without changing his politics at all, Weicker felt most comfortable in 2004 backing Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
But Weicker is no Democrat. Indeed, as Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe explains, "I think it's almost impossible to overstate the degree to which, psychologically, Weicker has identified himself as a third party, independent guy. When you get him talking about that stuff, you realize it's really at the heart of how he sees himself these days."
Weicker's independence -- and the fact that he has already won a statewide election without the benefit of major-party backing -- makes him all the more attractive as a challenger to Lieberman.
Make no mistake, it would still be an uphill challenge.
Lieberman retains an appeal to at least some Democrats -- he's got a strong record on the environment and a pretty good one on domestic labor issues -- and, of course, to Republicans who appreciate what he's done for Bush. But a genuine independent who challenges the incumbent on the most fundamental questions of war and peace will have appeal across the political spectrum.
Done right, a Weicker campaign could telescope the debate about Iraq and expose Lieberman for what his is: a politician whose moralizing has always been a mask for his overaching ambition.
A Lieberman-Weicker race could well give Connecticut the most interesting, issue-based Senate race in the country.
And it might just give George Bush the jolt he needs. After all, losing a favorite senator would be a blow to any president -- even a president as disengaged as this one.
So Weicker should run. Indeed, he must run.
Run, Lowell, run!
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
© 2005 The Nation