Has Joe Lieberman Already Reached His High-Water Mark?

Posted April 2, 2003 at 3:14pm

At first glance, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s positioning in the Democratic race for president looks pretty good. [IMGCAP(1)]

A mid-January ABC News/Washington Post poll showed him with a double-digit lead over every other Democratic hopeful and with an advantage among virtually every demographic group.

An early-March Zogby poll had Lieberman leading most Democrats in South Carolina, a key early primary state, though he drew only 12 percent to Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) 10 percent. Still, 54 percent of likely primary voters had a favorable opinion of him, compared to just 19 percent with an unfavorable opinion.

An early-December Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll showed the Connecticut Democrat leading in New York as well, with Lieberman at 23 percent to 20 percent for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

But when you look below the surface, Lieberman’s road to the nomination doesn’t appear quite so smooth. While he has a national profile, his prospects depend on how his opponents perform. Like a sports team that can make the playoffs only if others ahead of it in the standings falter, Lieberman doesn’t control his own destiny in the presidential race.

The Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee begins with a number of assets. He’s relatively well known from his role as Al Gore’s running mate, has experience as a Senator and as a state attorney general, comes from one of the wealthier states in the nation, and is seen as a hero to Jews around the country. And he’s certainly not your typical blow-dried politician.

But while he has stature and plenty of government experience, Lieberman’s support for the war against Iraq, his record on school choice and affirmative action, and his past difficulties with the entertainment industry mean that important Democratic constituencies have an array of bones to pick with him.

And those constituencies — which include the anti-war movement, teachers, the civil rights community and Hollywood — will have a say in whom the Democrats nominate.

The Senator’s current strength stems from his support among African Americans, a constituency he can’t afford to lose. But without Gore at his side, black voters won’t necessarily stick with him.

Lieberman’s most attractive quality to many is the fact that he isn’t just another double- talking politician. But while the former Democratic Leadership Council chairman insists that he has been consistent on issues, his encounter with NBC’s Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” suggests problems ahead.

If North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) had a bumpy initial run-in with Russert, Lieberman’s Jan. 19 performance was a train wreck.

Lieberman jumped through hoops trying to explain his support for Proposition 209 in California and to insist that he has been consistent in his support for affirmative action. But Russert, who put Lieberman’s own words up on the screen for viewers to read, made the Senator look silly.

One bad TV appearance does not a campaign unmake, but the problems that Lieberman encountered on that show are not likely to go away completely. Again and again over the next 10 or 11 months, he’ll have to address affirmative action (a highly visible issue now that the Supreme Court has taken the University of Michigan admissions cases), school choice, Iraq and alleged flip-flopping.

Supporters of Lieberman argue that Iraq will fade as an issue after the war has ended. But that rosy prediction may be too optimistic. For Democratic grassroots activists looking for reasons to support or oppose various candidates, Lieberman’s support of Bush won’t merely be an asterisk next year.

Lieberman’s recent commitment to pursue an agenda of gay rights and affirmative action, oppose racial profiling, and support legal abortion may attract the interest of some party liberals who have previously ignored him, but his new agenda may strike others as an example of political opportunism.

Geography is another consideration for Lieberman.

It is difficult to see him outdoing Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses, where all of those contenders have been working the state for months and attendees have historically sided with more liberal competitors. So Lieberman needs a strong showing in New Hampshire, where more moderate independent voters can participate in the Democratic primary.

But Kerry and Dean probably have a slightly bigger regional advantage in New England than Lieberman does, and any candidate who does surprisingly well in Iowa could get a bump in the Granite State. So New Hampshire isn’t exactly a piece of cake for Lieberman.

This means that Lieberman has to make a big bet on other early states (possibly Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina), which are likely to be affected by the results of Iowa and New Hampshire. He both needs to win some of these contests and hope that the race isn’t over after the Granite State primary.

Ultimately, Lieberman needs to prove that he can energize a crowd. His speech at the Democratic National Committee’s Winter Meeting was OK, but nothing more. While Gephardt and Edwards were surprisingly strong, and Dean had the true believers in ecstasy, Joe Lieberman was … Joe Lieberman. Likable. Reasonable. Even a little like your favorite uncle. That’s not bad, but, at this point, it’s not clear that that is good enough to win the Democratic presidential nomination.