Ballot Box

G.I. Joe

Joe Lieberman’s risky conservative campaign.

You know this isn’t going to be a standard Democratic presidential campaign kickoff when the guy introducing Sen. Joe Lieberman asks everyone to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. With cameras rolling, Lieberman turns to the wall and recites the magic words: allegiance, flag, America, God. Stepping to the podium, he speaks of our “God-given talents.” He says he feels “blessed by God” and believes “God’s work must truly be our own.” “My faith is at the center of who I am,” he continues. “I’ll not hesitate to talk about faith when it’s relevant or to invoke God’s name. … If the spirit moves me occasionally to say a word or two of faith, I think it’s a very American thing to do.”

He smiles and sips from his glass as the audience applauds. Nobody’s going to out-Christian Joe Lieberman.

The 2004 presidential election is like a football game in a stiff wind. Every other Democrat—Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry—wants the wind in the first quarter. They’re running to the left in the primaries, postponing the question of how, if they win the nomination, they’ll get back to the center in a fourth-quarter showdown with President Bush.

Lieberman is running the other way, into the wind. In the party of peace, secularism, and civil liberties, he’s the candidate of God, family values, and military muscle. If he makes it to the fourth quarter against Bush, he’ll have the wind at his back. The risk is that he’ll be blown out of the game before he gets there.

Kerry has a war record. Edwards and Gephardt support Bush’s hard line against Iraq. But none of them can match Lieberman’s hawkish record. He voted for the Persian Gulf War and spearheaded congressional support for the Iraqi resistance. Like Bush, he uses the E-word: “We must never shrink from using American power to defend our ideals against evil in a time of war.” He frames domestic issues in terms of national power. He speaks of “strengthening homeland security while protecting Social Security.” Of the current federal deficits, he warns, “You can’t keep doing that and keep America strong.”

Among Democrats, Lieberman is the closest thing to a cultural conservative. He extols “family and faith and responsibility.” “As my state’s attorney general, I stood with single moms to go after deadbeat dads,” he proclaims. “I have taken on the entertainment industry for peddling sex and violence to our children—and spoken up for parents who feel they are in competition with the popular culture to raise their children.”

Like his competitors, Lieberman preaches economic populism. But his version is more Clinton than Gore. He says his parents “worked their way into the American middle class,” vindicating the American promise “that no matter who you are or where you start, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can go as far as your God-given talents will take you.” Now, he worries, “For too many Americans the middle class is drifting out of reach.” Gore made populism sound like a civil war. Lieberman makes it sound like a war of national unity. “A strong middle class means a strong America,” he says.

In Lieberman’s story, the middle class doubles as the melting pot. It embraced, lifted, and assimilated his parents, who were “children of immigrants.” Today, their son promises to give “a new generation of immigrants their fair chance to live the American Dream.” The last Democrat who made that pledge ended up riding around in a tank in ads for Bush’s father. Lieberman’s betting that if somebody finds a picture of him in an M-1, the pairing won’t look so outlandish.