The Only ‘Presidential’ GOP Candidate

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 17, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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Trust me on this. Do not, even in idle curiosity, look at the postings on The Huffington Post regarding Joseph Lieberman’s endorsement of John McCain. Or, if you disregard my very sober advice and do have a look, bear in mind that all the antisemitism and anti-Israelism you will see expressed there is all there is. Every raging antisemite in the nation has now had his or her say, all the Israel-bashing has been spent, and we can go on.

Where shall we go? Shall we waste time correcting Lieberman’s misconception, the one he expressed at the press conference when he endorsed McCain? “I think,” he said with regard to his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, “they are beginning to think of me as the eccentric uncle. You know, ‘We like him, but every now and then he gets up and he says these very unusual things.’ So it goes.”

For the record, up until the endorsement “they” were thinking of him as a nuisance with which they had to put up lest they lose their tenuous control on the Senate. Now? Now it goes way beyond eccentricity, beyond nuisance. He’d be drummed out of the party caucus in a millisecond were it not that he is the 51st vote, the vote necessary to preserve the Democratic majority — which, although not worth nearly so much as was hoped and even anticipated, is not entirely worthless. (Just imagine Mitch McConnell as majority leader.)

Yet, unwittingly, Lieberman may have done the nation a favor by his endorsement. That endorsement may affect the New Hampshire results, as also the results in Florida a few weeks later. The latest Florida poll, by Rasmussen Reports, shows why: Back in November, Rudy Giuliani was leading with 27%, trailed by Mitt Romney with 19% and Fred Thompson with 16%. McCain came in with just 10%.

But the very current poll finds that Mike Huckabee, who had only 9% a month ago, is now on top with 27%; Romney has picked up four points, so is now at 23%; Giuliani is down eight points, to 19%, Thompson is down to 9% — and McCain is at a measly 6%.

If you assume that the Huckabee candidacy will not last once the candidate’s full record is known, and if you assume that Thompson is finished and that Giuliani is in a slide that is gathering momentum, you’re left with Romney and, distantly, McCain. There’s enough volatility in Florida, where just 49% of the Republicans say they’re certain to vote for their current preference, for a sharp upward move by McCain (who is currently the second choice of 16%).

I think that would be, as I said, a benefit to the nation. Romney’s announcement of his candidacy was regarded quite incredulously by Massachusetts voters, who had witnessed his performance as governor up close. As to Giuliani, the less said the better. Whereas the Democrats suffer from a surfeit of competence — take your pick: Biden, Clinton, Obama, Dodd, Edwards, Richardson — the Republicans have only one candidate who can seriously be regarded as “presidential.”

Make no mistake: I do not regard the prospect of a McCain presidency with anything even approximately like equanimity. For all his reputation for straight talk, he has too often betrayed his own principles, and his stance on the Iraq war is more than merely disconcerting. Yet he is a person of some distinction, and he is quite right to claim that on immigration, as on campaign finance reform, he’s broken ranks and done the right thing.

I’d rather see a serious campaign than one in which the Republicans are led by men so totally out of their league as his competitors for the nomination. And maybe — just maybe — the Lieberman endorsement will contribute to such a prospect.

But that is all that can be said on Lieberman’s behalf, and that is not the reason Lieberman put forward to explain his unusual behavior. True, one of his aides explained the endorsement by observing that Lieberman believes McCain “has the best chance of uniting the country in its fight against Islamic terrorism.” True, Lieberman spoke of the importance of breaking the gridlock he sees in Washington. But he then added, “Let me just say something for the record: None of the Democratic candidates asked me for my support; John McCain did.”

As if that’s what it’s about.

The danger here, as distinguished from the disappointment in Lieberman some people may belatedly be experiencing, is that we’ll now be saddled for a while with a boomlet in speculation regarding a McCain-Lieberman ticket. Desperate and dissatisfied Republicans may be tempted to grasp at that straw. And though it might look good in the record books — the only man ever to be a vice-presidential nominee for both the two major parties — the record books themselves are not what they were before Barry Bonds put an asterisk on the all-time home run record.

The Democrats have a very different campaign going. I’ve had a curious experience these last weeks: I’ve taken to asking people for which of the Democrats they’d vote if their vote could elect the next president. In other words, I was asking them to set aside the question of electability. And almost to a person, without significant hesitation, the answer’s been Joe Biden.

If we had the kind of system where everyone’s second choice were tallied, who knows? But we don’t, and so it is impossible to ignore the electability question. Is the nation ready for a woman? For a black?

In the end, there is only one way to find out. My bet? Either of the two, and Edwards as well, can win, can defeat even, should it come to that, McCain-Lieberman.


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