A Rebel...With a Cause

The second night of the Republican National Convention was punctuated by a strategic message from the Independent Senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman. Lieberman’s message was that if you want change in Washington, John McCain is a much better bet than Barack Obama.

The thrust of Lieberman’s speech was that Americans need to see McCain as a maverick, yes, but more importantly as a responsible maverick. For the past eight years, strategists and pundits on the left and the right have labeled President Bush a rebel, a go-it-alone cowboy who answers to no one — to his extreme detriment, if you ask opponents (and the United Nations), and to his great credit, if you ask supporters. Either way, Americans can agree that President Bush is unconcerned with being popular and often makes decisions that seem to taunt detractors into apoplectic seizure and unrestrained rage.

McCain, Lieberman argued, is just this kind of rebel, willing to break with party line and to defy the sacred cows of the GOP when he felt necessary. He’s "sounded the alarm about mistakes we were making in Iraq." He has never been afraid to "shake up Washington." We cannot "build a pen to hold in" John McCain. He is, as a maverick, the "best choice to bring our country together and lead our country."

But whereas President Bush may be categorized by the left and by independents as a dangerous maverick, McCain was positioned by Lieberman as a responsible maverick: trustworthy, sensible, and someone who puts "country first." Lieberman referred to himself more than once as a Democrat, even though he’s officially an “Independent” in the Senate. He is a lifelong Democrat and the courage it took for him to buck that Party by calling on all Democrats to vote for McCain is enormous. I’m a rebel, too, he was saying, so you should trust my endorsement of another rebel. Forget the party affiliations. He asked, "What’s a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?" Well, in short, he was there to convince America that McCain takes all the right kinds of chances.

It’s a dynamic strategy. Lieberman simultaneously appealed to the conservative base, who, in the spirit of Barry Goldwater and other cowboys like him, can appreciate and prize the rogue independence and irreverence of the Republican of yesterday. And he appealed to independents and undecideds, who should appreciate McCain’s oft-criticized departures from Republican policy, whether it’s been his stance on immigration, campaign financing, or domestic drilling. Lieberman’s battle cry in this speech, which was effectively, "a maverick you can trust," can galvanize two voting blocks at once and maybe even convince Democrats that McCain is not more of the same.

He cast Sarah Palin, McCain’s controversial running mate selection, in much the same light. She is a reformer who can bring the country together. And he positioned Barack Obama as insecure and beholden to his constituents, arguing that he hasn’t once in his short political career reached across party lines, hasn’t once seriously questioned the judgment of fellow Democrats.

And, somewhat surprisingly, he even heaped praise on President Clinton for doing exactly what he asserts McCain would do as president: question party mantra for the sake of getting things done.

All in all, Joe Lieberman used the opportunity in St Paul to put an interesting spin on the Democrats’ "twin cities" metaphor, which conjoined John McCain to George Bush in an effort to scare undecideds away from the Republican ticket. Bush and McCain might be twins, but McCain wades in the better end of the gene pool.