Day of the Spoiler

Inside Joe Lieberman's Kamikaze Campaign

When I first set out in early September to profile Lieberman, I began the conventional way: I rang up the press office and asked when a good time might be to witness the candidate in action on the campaign trail. For weeks press secretary Jano Cabrera promised to get back to me and never did. It was then that I finally logged on to the official Lieberman website.

(It's at Get it? Because he's just an average Joe.)

I took a look at the schedule of events the campaign seemed so disinclined to have me know about. September 12 was coming up. On that day Howard Dean stumped New Hampshire, snaking across the southwest corner of the state for a series of free rallies, cookouts, and dessert socials; Richard Gephardt gave a policy speech in Iowa. And Joseph Lieberman held a breakfast fundraiser at the home of Florida real estate developer Mark Gilbert in Boca Raton ("$1000 suggested"); then a luncheon at the Governors Club of the Palm Beaches ("A business conductive environment," its advertising promises. "A place to make money and save time"), also at $1,000 a spot. On September 13, he held only one event, dessert in the tony D.C. suburb of Potomac. "Suggested contribution: $360 per person."

illustration: Bob Dob

On the 14th, Joe scheduled an aberration, the only campaign event open to the general, non-paying public all the way through to the end of the month, a town hall meeting in Manchester (he preceded it with what the campaign advertised as an "all-out campaign blitz": The candidate knocked on six doors in downtown Concord). Then it was back to the grind—a reception, the next night, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston. "Event Hosts: $2000 contribution per person. Guests: $500 contribution per person."

This is what Jano Cabrera had been hiding from me. Save for these fundraisers, his candidate wasn't campaigning at all.

I learned from the calendar that Average Joe would be in my city on September 18: "Mary Castro and Angel Gomez/Proudly invite you to/'Dine in the Sky'/With the Next President of the United States. . . . Sponsors: $1000 per person. Guests: $250 per person."

Bingo. That my reporter's expense account could afford.

I called to RSVP. I explained that I had never attended a political fundraiser before; the young woman was excited to hear it. I asked how I might remit my fee. "You can fax your credit card information, that would be easiest, or you can just bring your check to the door."

My fax machine was on the fritz. I brought my check to the door.

The most Republican-sounding thing at the fundraiser I attended came during the cocktail chitchat beforehand. Joe was telling a funny story. A lawyer friend of his was talking shop at some social event or another. "Are you doing legal work?" Joe reported himself asking, to which the man came back, "If I'm breathin', I'm billin'!" A roar from the conversation circle surrounding him, appreciative nods, then one of the guys responded, "That could be our firm's motto!"

Note well, however, that this was the only Republican-sounding thing I heard from Joe Lieberman that afternoon. He opened with the story of parents who told him of the rare disease their young child was dying from, and how proud he was to be able to say that the first thing he would do as president would be to rescind Bush's executive order limiting stem-cell research. He would sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, join the International Criminal Court. He forcefully asserted there was nothing to admire in George Bush's administration; and, despite their differences on the details, Bush's economics sound just as dastardly when critiqued in the soporific drone of Joseph Lieberman as they do in the throatier cries of Howard Dean.

It kind of gave me a 007 thrill, stepping out of the cab to crash the big fundraiser and hear Joe Lieberman talk like a stealth Republican to his greedy fat-cat donors. The only buzz I left with, however, came from the $250 glass of Chardonnay. Joseph Lieberman may be more conservative than the other Democratic candidates, and he may be puppyishly eager—disastrously, selfishly so—to advertise the fact. But let's face it: When it comes right down to it, he is still a Democrat. His handsomely progressive new tax plan shows that. Republicans will hate it. And the Republicans had no compunctions about, and no difficulty in, derailing Bill Clinton's presidency even as he tacked steadily to the right after the 1994 midterm elections. They had no compunctions about, and no difficulty in, painting the Georgia senator and Iraq war supporter Max Cleland as a treasonous Saddam-supporter even though he lost several limbs in Vietnam. So why should the Republican Party have any harder time smearing Joe Lieberman, if he's the Democratic nominee, than they would Howard Dean?

Unless, that is, he adopts as his platform every jot and tittle of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. And perhaps even then.

Joseph Lieberman adds nothing to the Democrats' chances in 2004. He does, however, take things away. In fighting to the finish and losing the nomination, he will have irreparably weakened the winner. If he wins it, he will suck out something precious: the active enthusiasm of the unwealthy that is a center-left party's only natural advantage against a party of money, the Republicans.

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