Crocodile tears for Joe

Robert Novak
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Posted: Aug 14, 2006 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- Mary Matalin, longtime Republican political operative and Vice President Dick Cheney's adviser, seemed near tears on the Fox News Channel Tuesday night as adverse voting returns for Sen. Joseph Lieberman came in from Connecticut. With Matalin a reliable indicator of her party's line, she began an outpouring of GOP grief over Lieberman's Democratic primary defeat. That was a remarkable reaction to a liberal senator who has given George W. Bush scant help on any issue other than Iraq, from which he now also has retreated.

In Lieberman's and my school days, this would be called shedding crocodile tears (defined by Webster's as "a hypocritical show of sorrow"). Cheney himself deplored Connecticut's results, and presidential adviser Karl Rove placed a publicized telephone call to the senator. Republicans cast anti-war primary winner Ned Lamont as a cross between Joe McCarthy and George McGovern. Contradicting his 18-year Senate voting record, Lieberman is identified as a Democratic centrist (supposedly one of the last of that breed).

With Republican morale sliding three months before midterm elections, Connecticut provided welcome news for GOP strategists. Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman on the day after the primary was in Cleveland facing a Republican meltdown in Ohio and warned of a McGovernite takeover of the Democratic Party by elitists. Mehlman described Rep. Sherrod Brown, a left-wing congressman who leads Republican Sen. Mike DeWine for re-election, as a Midwestern Lamont.

But how different from Lieberman would Lamont vote in the Senate? Not much. President Bush, always seeking Texas-style centrists, famously hugged and kissed Lieberman on the House floor after delivering the 2005 State of the Union Address. Aside from Iraq, it has been unrequited love with Lieberman consistently denying Bush needed votes. Lieberman was in Connecticut campaigning Aug. 3 when the Senate again failed to break a filibuster against estate tax relief, but he would have voted no had he been there.

In key votes of the last Congress selected by the Almanac of American Politics, Lieberman followed the straight liberal line in opposing oil drilling in ANWR, Bush tax cuts, overtime pay reform, the energy bill, and bans on partial birth abortion and same-sex marriage. Similarly, he voted in support of Roe v. Wade, and for banning assault weapons and bunker buster bombs. His only two pro-Bush votes were to fund the Iraq war and support missile defense (duplicating Sen. Hillary Clinton's course on both).

Lieberman's most recent ratings by the American Conservative Union were 7 percent in 2003, zero in 2004 and 8 percent in 2005. "Well deserved!" ACU Chairman David Keene told me. "I don't see why any conservative should be overly concerned about Joe Lieberman's plight."

Lieberman has opposed Bush as the environmentalists' Senate leader on global warming. He rebuffed attempts to compromise Social Security reform. He had a perfect record, seven for seven, backing filibusters that blocked Bush judicial nominees. He voted for cloture on three judicial nominations only after a compromise by the bipartisan Gang of 14 (which included Lieberman). He voted against confirming Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

This record of party regularity has won Lieberman's independent candidacy little backing from party stalwarts. Only four (out of 44) Democratic senators announced post-primary support for him. I could not find backing for Lieberman's independent candidacy from any of my longtime Democratic sources, who never have been associated with the MoveOn.org, neo-McGovernite wing of the party. Primarily because of Iraq, the clock has run out on Lieberman in his party since he was its 2000 nominee for vice president. In his disastrous 2004 campaign for the presidential nomination, he lost badly in eight consecutive state contests (doing no better than 11 percent in Delaware).

For Lieberman to have any chance in November, Connecticut Republican voters will have to reject the party's lackluster nominee (former State Rep. Alan Schlesinger). The only conceivable motivation would be Lieberman's position on Iraq, but even that faded last week. In a desperate Sunday night effort to separate himself from the president, he said "many of the Bush administration's decisions regarding the conduct of the war" were not "right." That did not fit the post-primary profile of courage that subsequently was sketched for him by the Republican high command.