Sanctimonious Joe?

William F. Buckley

10/13/2007 7:51:03 PM - William F. Buckley

A while back, watching television, I winced when a Democratic stalwart referred to "sanctimonious Joe." He was talking about Sen. Joe Lieberman, I quickly discovered. Since then I have begun quietly memorizing the anti-Lieberman glossary. A few days ago I spotted "race-baiting." "War-mongering" is a term of derogation so widely used, you have to remind yourself to wince when you hear it.

There are those who belong to a mischievous political set that gets a kick out of the whole thing. Here is why, for those who have lost track:

Lieberman was so radiantly established as a Democratic luminary that when Al Gore announced that he had selected Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, there wasn't much surprise. Lieberman's credentials were in fine order. Hometown boy from Stamford, Conn., brilliant career at Yale, on to law school and, briefly, the practice of law, before he won election to the Connecticut state Senate and began his rise in the Democratic Party. In 1988 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating longtime incumbent Lowell Weicker.

There was a great big bump in the road in 2006. Sen. Lieberman supported the U.S. enterprise in Iraq, as indeed did most Democrats at the time. But there was a hothead waiting for him in Greenwich, Conn., where those devoted to golf and Wall Street from time to time assert their democratic macho. They did this in the Democratic primary by locating a relative unknown and encouraging him to run for the nomination against Lieberman.

At first this was thought a truly preposterous sally, which, in the end, it proved to be. But before the end came, the contender had prevailed over Lieberman, who, in six years, had traveled from Democratic vice presidential nominee to disowned Democratic senator.

Well, order was quickly established. Joe Lieberman announced that he would run as an independent, and that doomed the candidacy of the usurper. But the real drama was immediately ahead. When the 2006 returns were finally in, we learned that the Senate had 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans, one Socialist -- and Joe Lieberman.

Political housekeepers went quickly to work, and Senate Democrats decided the time had come to be extremely nice to Joe Lieberman. Because as long as he stayed with them to organize the Senate, it was Democratic. He was at liberty -- is at liberty -- to cross the aisle anytime he feels like it and vote with the Republicans, and perhaps inaugurate his new career by proposing an end to any federal aid to Greenwich, Conn.

He has not done that, but he has provided critical aid to the Republican administration. Of course, there has been the ongoing support for the Iraqi enterprise. He went so far in this as to vote against Sen. Harry Reid's proposal to put down a date after which no money could be voted to sustain that war. Sometimes he would wander even further afield, as when he provided critical support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. More recently, he asked Gen. David Petraeus if he wanted congressional authority to pursue Iranian troops across the Iraqi border into Iran. That elicited a blog headed, "How Nucking Futs is Holy Joe Lieberman?"

Asked in a television interview whether he intended to change his political allegiance, Sen. Lieberman smiled patiently at the questioner and managed to convey that he was in no hurry, but would welcome the Democrats' rediscovery of the international spirit shown by FDR, JFK and LBJ.

Al Gore has yet to be heard from on this point, but the Nobel Prize he has just been awarded for his pursuit of peace is certain to be interpreted by political ethnologists as the equivalent of rewarding Gore for disavowing his sometime running mate.

Now all this, of course, will straighten out after the next election. To add to the piquancy of the scene, Connecticut's other senator, Christopher Dodd, is eager to run for president. Dodd first won election to the Senate in 1980, defeating James L. Buckley, former senator from New York.

It is unwise, while seeking ascendancy in your party, to berate senior figures in the same party, which is what Joe Lieberman was until the avant-gardists in Greenwich decided to oust him. Just possibly, Christopher Dodd will find himself rejected for president, and rejected two years later for yet another term in the Senate. Maybe the Democrats in Greenwich will attempt to draft James Buckley, restoring a sense of historical order.