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Lieberman Unbound

Lieberman is loose again. The lockup of Saddam has unchained Joe, who is now whacking away furiously at Howard Dean, Wesley Clark and Democrats with the temerity to have opposed the war.

Connecticut’s contribution to calumny has all but obviated the need for Karl Rove to go negative on Dean. On Sunday, just hours after Saddam’s capture was announced, Lieberman was on the tube proclaiming, “If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a much more dangerous place.”

The following day, Lieberman reacted to Dean’s foreign policy address in Century City, in which Dean upped the invective, expressing clear satisfaction at Saddam’s apprehension but rightly noting that there are far greater dangers to American security than the Iraqi tyrant. “If [Dean] truly believes the capture of this evil man has not made America safer,” Lieberman said, “then Howard Dean has put himself in his own spider hole of denial. I fear that the American people will wonder if they will be safer with him as president.”

Tuesday saw Lieberman in New Hampshire, where he was still warming to the topic. “Howard Dean seems to believe if you are just against everything, that’s enough,” Lieberman said in a speech his campaign had billed as a major address. “Against removing Saddam Hussein. Against tax cuts. Against knocking down walls of protection around the world so we can sell more products that are made in America, by Americans. Dr. Dean has become Dr. No.” At which point, Lieberman put himself forward as the candidate of unity. “The decision before you is as direct as this: Are we going to bring this country together and move it forward? Or are we going to keep it divided and take it backward?” In Lieberman Land, the way to bring the country together is by dividing his own political party.

On the one hand, Lieberman’s offensive should come as no surprise. His has been the most negative of the Democratic campaigns, growing more so as Democrats have failed to respond to his message. As my American Prospect colleague Michael Tomasky has noted, Lieberman entered the race at the top, leading all candidates when he came in with 25 to 27 percent of Democratic support, depending on the polls. He’s since spiraled downward, with his national polling at no better than half that figure, running far behind Dean.

National polling, of course, still registers name recognition as much as anything else. It’s in state polling where Joe has really taken a dive. His polling was so poor in Iowa that he pulled out of the state’s caucuses; he’s now well back in the pack in New Hampshire and South Carolina — the first two key primary states — as well.

Clearly, Lieberman has gone on the attack because he has nothing to lose. The New Hampshire primary is just six weeks away; and Saddam’s arrest, he’s calculated, gives him probably his last opportunity to reshape the race. Problem is, what Lieberman needs to reshape is his party. On Sunday night, ABC and the Washington Post conducted a quickie national poll to see just how Saddam’s capture may have changed the political landscape here at home. (Fully 95 percent of respondents already knew of the arrest.) One question asked whether, factoring in both the costs and benefits to the U.S., the war was worth fighting. Fifty-three percent answered yes, and 42 percent answered no — a minuscule change from one month previous, when the figures stood at 52 percent yes and 44 percent no. Broken down by party, however, the divisions in America become clear. Fully 74 percent of Republicans thought the war worth fighting, and just 20 percent did not, while only 34 percent of Democrats thought it a worthy conflict, with 60 percent saying it wasn’t. Independents were divided, 50 percent to 48 percent.

In the mind of Joe Lieberman, this means that by close to a two-to-one margin his entire party is down in the spider hole with Dean.

 

Lieberman may have nothing to lose by his attack, but his party has been bloodied big time by his assaults. Dean is clearly the front-runner for the nomination, and his followers, now close to a third of the party, are vastly more committed to their candidate and campaign than any other candidates’ backers are to their own. On Sunday, Lieberman crossed a line. He now threatens to marginalize the most likely nominee, or blow the party asunder should he succeed.

We need to define success here. There’s no chance whatever that Lieberman could win the nomination; he long since marginalized himself within his own party. Other candidates, more electable than he, may surge past Dean; the likeliest is Wesley Clark, though there’s still a possibility that Dick Gephardt could rise from the dead. In a sense, Lieberman is inadvertently doing Gephardt’s dirty work, and that of the other candidates who backed the war as well. (Lieberman’s not alone: A group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values — whose funding sources are not yet publicly known — has taken to the air in New Hampshire with an ad that features a picture of Osama while blasting Dean on security issues. The group’s president and treasurer have longstanding ties to Gephardt.)

Dean is no George McGovern — he’s far too pugnacious — but the parallels between Lieberman and McGovern’s chief rival in the 1972 primaries, Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, are striking. Jackson ran as the one Democratic candidate who still supported the war in Vietnam, a position that ensured he would fail to win the nomination just as surely as Lieberman’s pro-war adamance condemns Joe to finishing out of the money this year. But as the campaign season progressed, Jackson increasingly saw his mission as bringing down McGovern no matter what. It was Jackson who termed McGovern – a middle-American Methodist if ever there was one – the candidate of “acid, abortion and amnesty.” By the time Scoop and his ilk were done with McGovern, the Nixon re-election campaign hardly needed to take the field.

Joe Lieberman is Scoop Redux, willing to blow apart his party in a last-gasp attempt to resurrect his own failed candidacy. But the genie is out of the bottle, with all the other major candidates, save only Clark, now gunning for Dean with a vehemence new to the campaign. Dean is no McGovern, but the year is starting to bear a grim resemblance to 1972. And our deus ex machina — Wesley Clark — is still learning how to campaign.