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Eye on the News

James Kirchick
Defending Joe
Setting the record straight on Lieberman’s Obama “smears”
8 December 2008

Appearing before a crowded press gathering staking out a meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus last month, Senator Joe Lieberman delivered a faint-hearted explanation for statements he had made during the presidential campaign. “Some of the things that people have said I said about Senator Obama are simply not true,” Lieberman, who crossed party lines to endorse John McCain, declared. “There are other statements that I made that I wish I had made more clearly. And there are some that I made that I wish I had not made at all.” Surrounded by his Democratic colleagues and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at his side, Lieberman’s act of contrition had something of a forced-confession quality to it, and his “apology” was apparently part of an agreement he struck with the Democratic leadership allowing him to retain his chairmanship over the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Yet Lieberman had nothing to apologize for. Over the past several months, Democrats have repeatedly alleged that Lieberman “smeared” Obama during the campaign. Their charges have become so widely accepted—mainstream news outlets frequently referred to Lieberman’s “attacks” on Obama—that apparently Lieberman himself believes them, or was at least coerced into giving the impression that he believes them. Below are the three most specious claims about Lieberman’s supposedly “unacceptable” behavior (in the words of his colleague Byron Dorgan), provided with the context that his critics deliberately omit.

1. Lieberman said that it was a “good question” whether Obama was a Marxist.

This is the most oft-repeated claim made against Lieberman, and it derives from a radio interview he conducted with Andrew Napolitano in April. Were the accusation true—that is, had Lieberman, in a serious setting, assented to the supposition that Obama is a Marxist—it might be grounds for demanding an apology. But it’s not. Let’s go to the tape:

NAPOLITANO: Hey, Senator Lieberman, you know Barack Obama, is he a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case in today’s New York Times? Is he an elitist like your colleague Hillary Clinton says he is?

LIEBERMAN: Well, you know, I must say that’s a good question. I know him now for a little more than three years since he came into the Senate and he’s obviously very smart and he’s a good guy. I will tell ya that during this campaign, I’ve learned some things about him, about the kind of environment from which he came ideologically. And I would . . . I’d hesitate to say he’s a Marxist, but he’s got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America.

To those unschooled in semiotic deception, this exchange is unremarkable. Clearly, “I must say that’s a good question” was in reply to the host’s second query, referring to Senator Hillary Clinton’s calling Obama an elitist (if Lieberman had said, “I must say those are good questions,” then the outraged Netroots Nation would have cause). And if Lieberman’s mere openness to the suggestion that Obama is an elitist so enrages liberals, then they ought to have called for the head of their former heroine and incoming Secretary of State, who made the charge outright in the first place.

Lieberman then proceeded to praise the Democratic presidential nominee as “obviously very smart and he’s a good guy.” Usually, when smearing someone, one doesn’t qualify it by pointing out the target’s intelligence and likability. Just in case that clarification was insufficient, Lieberman added, with obvious sarcastic understatement, “I’d hesitate to say he’s a Marxist.” The Connecticut senator, as liberals are quick to point out, is not one to hold his tongue. If he wanted to call Obama a Marxist, he would have leveled the charge unambiguously, avoiding the supposed innuendo, insinuation, and code that liberals spend so many man-hours hunting and deciphering.

2. Lieberman “smeared” Obama by stating that Hamas endorsed him.

That same month of April, a Hamas political advisor stated: “We like Mr. Obama and we hope he will win the election,” noting that “[Obama] has a vision to change America.” John McCain mentioned this “endorsement,” if you will, not long after it was uttered. In a May interview on CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked Lieberman about Obama’s outraged response. Lieberman replied:

John McCain obviously knows and has said that Senator Obama clearly doesn’t support any of the values or goals of Hamas. But the fact that the spokesperson for Hamas would say they would welcome the election of Senator Obama really does raise the question, why? And it suggests the difference between these two candidates.

Indeed, it did. Perception, as liberals are the first to argue, matters in foreign policy. After eight years of a “belligerent” and “unilateral” approach to the world, they say, America needs Obama for the salving effect he would have on our image abroad. I’ve argued before that the case for “soft power” is overstated, but let’s for now accept the Left’s premise that few things matter more in American foreign policy than what foreigners think about us. If one reason to support a presidential candidate is the praise that he receives from people overseas, how is it then unfair to ask why, in addition to the hordes of cheering Germans, so many anti-American leaders are also on the Obama bandwagon?

3. Lieberman insulted Obama when he described him as “a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead.”

Only in the minds of the perpetually offended Left could the above sentiment, delivered in Lieberman’s speech to the Republican National Convention, appear as an insult. “Gifted” and “eloquent” are two of the most common words used to describe Barack Obama (at least Lieberman didn’t call him “clean” and “articulate,” as Joe Biden did). Obama’s youth played a role in attracting the support of liberals, who spoke of the healing he could supposedly provide as a member of the post-baby-boom generation. Meanwhile, throughout the campaign, liberals frequently derided McCain for his age, and the Democrats made a concerted effort to portray him as senile. If a candidate’s age is fair game—and it should be—then the issue should apply to both sides.

But the Lieberman criticism that stings the most was the senator’s suggestion that the Democratic Party—his party—was putting politics before the good of the country in alleging that the Bush administration “lied” to the country about the case for war in Iraq. Whenever Democrats face criticism about their opportunistic stand on Iraq, they accuse their critics of questioning their patriotism—regardless of whether anyone is, in fact, questioning their patriotism. That’s because they have as much interest as conservatives do in raising the subject, since the mere claim that a liberal’s patriotism has been impugned taints the questioner as McCarthyite. It didn’t take long for Lieberman to become the target of this rhetorical trick, after his remarks at a campaign rally in August:

“In my opinion, the choice could not be more clear: between one candidate, John McCain, who’s had experience, been tested in war and tried in peace, another candidate who has not,’’ Mr. Lieberman said. “Between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not. Between one candidate who’s a talker, and the other candidate who’s the leader America needs as our next president.”

Lieberman: Obama Has Not Always Put Country First, trumpeted the New York Times. The headline could have also read Lieberman: Obama Has Not Worked Across Party Lines to Get Things Done, but that doesn’t have quite the same red-baiting ring to it. Nor would it have supported the narrative that liberals are constantly having their patriotism questioned. But to state that Obama, and Democrats in Congress more generally, have not “put their country first” in the matter of Iraq (the context in which Lieberman raised the issue), is not a challenge to his patriotism, nor is it out of bounds.

When the war went downhill, most Democrats chose to invent a narrative in which the administration had tricked them into backing it. Thus cleared of responsibility, Democrats then advocated a policy that would have led to the United States losing the war (over a year ago, Harry Reid declared the war “lost” and called on America to accept defeat), thereby leaving Iraq to the tender mercies of Iran and al-Qaida and emboldening this country’s enemies. Postulating that the political leaders who advocated this set of policies—Obama prominent among them—put electoral concerns before the national interest is provocative, perhaps, but hardly beyond the pale. And, by the way, how often have Democrats accused Republicans of putting their greed, lust for power, and allegiance to a foreign country “first”?

A lifelong Democrat with a reliable liberal voting record and his party’s vice presidential nominee just eight years ago, Lieberman has been one of the most perceptive and honest critics of Democratic foreign policy over the past several years. Liberals know that his criticisms carry more weight with the average voter than those of Republicans, devoid as they are of partisan motive. It says something ominous that so many Democrats, rather than honestly confront the uncomfortable questions Lieberman has raised, would rather attack his character instead.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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