Joe Republican?

Why President Bush loves Sen. Lieberman.

Bush: “Yer doin’ a heckuva job, Joey.”

George Bush can’t stop talking about Sen. Joe Lieberman. For the last two weeks, the president has been citing the Connecticut Democrat in his major speeches about the war in Iraq. Bush has quoted Lieberman as saying that we have made progress in Iraq and have a strategy for winning, then he declared: “Sen. Lieberman is right.”

Vice President Dick Cheney also quoted Lieberman approvingly this week. Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman and White House spokesman Scott McClellan name-checked Lieberman, too. Last January, George Bush gave Lieberman a kiss on the cheek before the State of the Union. The way things are going, this January Bush might give him a back rub.

Why so much affection? Lieberman, a conservative Democrat, has credibility, and Bush is trying to regain his. When Bush says there’s progress in Iraq, moderates think he’s spinning. When Lieberman says it, they might actually believe it. Quoting Lieberman highlights the Democratic Party’s confused position on the war. White House aides hope Lieberman becomes the anti-Murtha, the sage Democrat who slows the push for speedy withdrawal.

Bush hasn’t just cherry-picked Lieberman’s complimentary remarks about Iraq policy. The president has also embraced Lieberman’s criticism. He said the senator was correct to charge that “mistakes had been made” in the prosecution of the war. That’s just a flicker of candor, but it’s new for the president. The old Bush would have tweezed the good bits from Lieberman and pretended the criticisms didn’t exist. Today’s embattled Bush is trying to show those who doubt him that he sees things clearly. Embracing Lieberman’s criticisms, however gingerly, helps Bush show that he’s awake without looking like he’s caving to political pressure from lefty partisans.

Lieberman benefits by the association as well. He gets to do a McCain. He has a free pass to candor. He can beat up President Bush and praise him—both help his image. As with McCain, Lieberman’s showy acts of centrism inspire the hatred of the ideological core of his party. Lieberman rattled their blogs when he preached recently: “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge he’ll be commander-in-chief for three more years. We undermine the president’s credibility at our nation’s peril.”

Lieberman is running for a fourth term in 2006, but angering liberals in his party won’t hurt much. He’s popular and has no real opponent. His former rival Lowell Weicker, whom he beat in 1988 before Weicker jumped from the GOP to become an independent, is mulling a challenge, but that’s more a nuisance than a competitive threat. *

Unlike McCain, Lieberman isn’t going to be able to translate his maverick status into national electoral success. His 2004 presidential campaign was a bomb—he didn’t win a single primary delegate. McCain has stage charisma that Lieberman doesn’t. Lieberman’s better in small rooms. He comes off a little schoolmarmish on the stump. (His presidential campaign book had the stuffy title: Leading With Integrity) And of course, Lieberman doesn’t have McCain’s biography. Keeping the Sabbath is laudable, but not like surviving the Hanoi Hilton.

Lieberman can’t aspire to the presidency, but he can certainly aim for the Cabinet. Lieberman has solidified his standing as the Democratic Party Wise Man, a senatorial post held in the past by Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Scoop Jackson of Washington. Wise men of this sort are by definition politically limited, and that makes them attractive to presidents. A president knows he can pick a Wise Man for his competence without having to worry about a political challenge.

That is why Washington is awash in rumors that Bush might be thinking of tapping Lieberman to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. When I ask administration officials about this, it’s hard to get a straight answer. “If the boss is considering him, I can’t tell you what he’s thinking,” says one top official. “I have no evidence that Rumsfeld is planning on leaving,” reports another.

I usually get much stouter denials when I’m asking about replacements for the secretary of Defense, which makes me wonder if the Lieberman rumor has legs. Rumsfeld is the only one giving ironclad denials.

It’s hard to tell whether Lieberman is in serious contention for the post, or if the White House just likes the idea floating out there that he is. As with quoting Lieberman, appearing to consider him for defense secretary makes Bush seem more thoughtful and reasonable.

Correction, Dec. 12, 2005: The article originally and incorrectly said that Lowell Weicker left the Republicans for the Democrats. He did not. Weicker left to become an independent. Return to the corrected sentence.