Ballot Box

Central Miscasting

Joe Lieberman needs to be played by somebody else.

I want to vote for Joe Lieberman. I really do. I just want somebody else to deliver his lines.

That’s the pained, guilty feeling I get every time I see him speak. And I’m not alone. A lot of moderate voters love Lieberman’s record and message. He’s been fiscally responsible, tough on crime, and strong on defense. He hasn’t let the Bush administration’s gratuitous exaggerations muddle his basis for supporting the Iraq war. He’s resisted demands from the left to reject Bush’s half-a-loaf prescription-drug benefit and to repeal all of Bush’s tax cuts, including the middle-class relief Democrats supported in the first place.

In short, Lieberman has carved out a crucial, compelling role as leader of the mainstream opposition. The problem is, he can’t play it.

Today’s speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., illustrates the conundrum. Essentially, Lieberman is here to declare war on Howard Dean and the left. He starts off with a boxing metaphor: “Today I’m in training for two bouts. The first is a fight for the future of the Democratic Party. The second, the main event,” is against Bush. Since Bush “is covering up on his right, a left hook is not going to knock him out. We’ve got to go right up the middle,” says Lieberman. He vows to stay in the fight for the full “15 rounds.” He speaks more than a dozen times of “strength” and “fighting.”

That’s the message. The messenger, however, looks unconvinced. The first question he gets is whether he’s aiming his remarks at Dean. Lieberman replies that he “respects” Dean’s opposition to the Iraq war, “but I just plain disagree with it.” Disagree? This isn’t some Iowa town hall where candidates have to suck up to an anti-war crowd. This is the epicenter of Beltway moderation. Yet Lieberman can’t pull the trigger.

Lieberman’s body language is even more incongruous. He speaks of “strength” in a faint, creaky voice. He makes a fist but never clenches it and seldom raises it above the podium. When he does swing it forward in an attempt to look forceful, his head reclines away, as though he’s the one getting punched. “My campaign has a lot of energy,” he asserts in a voice trailing off. “I’m standing for something,” he insists as he leans on the podium. In the flattest tone imaginable, he drones that he’s “stunned” by Bush’s lack of preparation for postwar Iraq. He accuses Bush of “tighten[ing] the noose around working families’ necks” and tries to illustrate the noose, but somehow can’t manage to close the distance between his hands to less than 18 inches. He threatens to hit Bush “right up the middle” but defuses the gesture with an avuncular grin.

Lieberman isn’t the only candidate in this race who’s mismatched with his message. One of the comedies of the 2004 campaign is watching all the candidates other than Dean claim to be angry when they clearly aren’t. Lieberman just happens to be the least convincing of them. “I share the anger of my fellow Democrats,” he croaks faintly. The impersonation is miserably weak. If you got into a fender bender with Dean, and he got out of his car and started walking toward you, you’d be afraid he was going to hit you. If, on the other hand, you looked up and saw that the guy approaching your car was Lieberman, you’d relax and roll down your window.

Around the Slate Washington, D.C., office, Lieberman’s communications staff has become a running joke. It’s not that any of the staffers are bad at their job. It’s just that every week there seems to be a new hire, culminating in the appointment of a Senate communications director named Gobush, which we facetiously suspected was a sign that Lieberman had cleaned out the pool of employable Democrats. Why does Lieberman need so many staffers to communicate for him? Perhaps because he can’t do it himself.

One big sign of trouble in a campaign is when the candidate makes his campaign strategy a centerpiece of his stump speech. Lieberman does this all the time. He tells Democratic audiences he can match Bush where Bush is strong—on defense and values—and beat Bush where Bush is weak, on the economy. That may be true. But Lieberman shouldn’t have to say it. He’s the candidate. His job is to be appealing, not to tell people why they should find him appealing, or why they should vote for him because some other constituency will find him appealing. If the candidate can’t sell himself just by being himself, no stump speech about his campaign strategy is going to save him.

I’m not saying Lieberman is miscast as a politician. He has strengths, and those strengths worked well in previous roles. His soft-spoken integrity made him the perfect Democrat to step forward and condemn President Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Two years later, his affable cheerleading made him the perfect running mate for Al Gore. But neither of those traits serves him well as he seeks the top job in a world shaken by terrorism. Half the time, he looks bored and tired. The rest of the time, he tries to be funny but ends up playing Shecky Lieberman, a smut-fighting, pro-invasion stand-up comic.

I feel for Lieberman. I used to write music but gave up because I couldn’t sing. I’ve seen great songwriters—Joe Jackson comes to mind—ruin their music by trying to perform it themselves. When you create good roles or write good lines, it’s natural to think you’re the one who should deliver them. But sometimes you just aren’t. Joe Lieberman is a gentle soul. I like him for that. I just don’t see how it’ll make him president.