Looking to Lieberman

Ben J. Wattenberg
Senior Fellow
Ben Wattenberg

It has become quite apparent that Sen. John McCain will be the Republican candidate for President in 2008.

I came to know Mr. McCain in 2000 while touring New Hampshire with him for several days on the "Straight Talk Express." Notwithstanding their hard-boiled act, the regulars loved Mr. McCain for his near-total accessibility and more straight talk than most politicians serve up in a lifetime, albeit not on every issue nor on every occasion.

The sweepstakes for who Mr. McCain's vice-presidential running mate will be is already booting up. It is an important choice.

I scorn those who make predictions on presidential elections. So sue me. I think John McCain will be the next president of the United States.

The days are long gone since Texas Democrat John Nance Garner, one of Franklin Roosevelt's vice presidents, said, "the vice presidency wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit." (Except "spit" was not the word he used.)

President Jimmy Carter gave Vice President Walter Mondale a vast swath of policy tasks to supervise. And the incumbent, Dick Cheney, has been caricatured as "George Bush's brain." I admire both men; I think each is educated and wise. Even more than Mr. Mondale, Mr. Cheney has had unprecedented influence on his boss and the U.S. government, more so in the early years, somewhat less now.

The vice presidency has been mocked since the day of its inception, coincident with the establishment of the Republic. But in addition to its new-found influence, it has something else to recommend it to public servants seeking to become president (most of them, not all.) It is a great stepping-stone to the highest office. Just recently, the cases of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush are instructive.

My choice for Mr. McCain's choice is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Independent. Now, surely, the Republican National Convention would reject out of hand a Democrat as Mr. McCain's choice. We don't do "unity governments" in America. But Mr. Lieberman is no longer a Senate Democrat, though he caucuses with them.

In 2006, he was beaten in a Connecticut Democratic primary by very liberal Democrat Ned Lamont. But in the Nutmeg state, as in the rest of the country, very-liberal Democrats are not held in high regard. The radicalism of "The '60s" has not worn off and most mainstream Democratic politicians--particularly those running for president--will not denounce the very-liberals, yielding the impression that the party is in their thrall. That is a major reason that, since Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory 1964, Democrats have won a majority of the popular vote only once, when Jimmy Carter amassed 50.1 percent in 1976.

Having been turned down by the Democrats, driven by their peace activists, Mr. Lieberman ran as an Independent. He won a solid victory.

I have known Joe since he was a teenager in Stamford. Conn., and I was about 10 years older. He was a political prodigy. I recall hearing him speak to Democrats at Cummins Park on Long Island Sound, and spell-binding a fairly sophisticated audience. The elderly Jews in the audience murmured to each other "one day that boy is going to be president." It's not too late.

He is a moderate. That may annoy some rigid conservatives. It should intrigue those who would actually like to capture the presidency rather than score purity points. Mr. Lieberman has "cross-over appeal." Recall that he and Albert Gore Jr. won a plurality of the popular vote in 2000. The polls indicated Mr. Lieberman ran particularly well among religious voters, Easterners, Jews, moderates and those concerned about national security.

Mr. McCain could use that help. Moreover, Mr. Lieberman is not so off the beaten track of Republican ideology--though I expect he might deny that.

Recall: Ronald Reagan signed a California pro-choice bill. He was an environmentalist--just try not being one today. Mr. Lieberman is particularly strong on the issue, but not an extreme green. Government spending soared in California and Washington during Mr. Reagan's watch, but taxation as a function of gross domestic product has remained about constant. We need to improve our infrastructure--even if you call it "pork."

Further, Mr. Lieberman runs particularly well in Florida, a crucial swing state that could well make the difference between defeat and victory, as it has before.

Of course, Mr. Lieberman has said he would not accept a vice-presidential nomination in a McCain presidency. He will, however, appear at the Republican Convention. He is a man of his word. He is also a patriot. I believe if the country is in danger in a time of war he will accept the Vice-Presidential nomination if it is offered.

If it is not, I would guess that if Mr. McCain wins he would ask him to serve as secretary of state or defense secretary. I think he would decline. Powerful senators with seniority usually prefer the independence and influence of elected office. My hero, Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson was offered both--and refused the offers.

Meanwhile, it seems as if Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will be fighting interminable and probably bitter trench warfare for months, which is not a good sign for the Democrats.

I scorn those who make predictions on presidential elections. So sue me. I think John McCain will be the next president of the United States.

A word about me to let the reader know from whence I come. I have always been a registered Democrat. In the 1960s, I think the far left wing of the Democratic Party went overboard and most centrists refused to denounce that tendency--which tarred the party as unduly influenced by that left wing. I have lived through and been involved in much of that process. I am trying to understand what happened and what happened to me.

I am writing a book--my first in a narrative form. It is called: "Fighting Words--A Chronicle About How Liberals Created Neo-conservatism."

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at AEI.

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