The extraordinary nature of the second night of the Republican convention can be summed up this way: a partial eclipse of the president — by one of the Democrats he beat in 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman.
I know some readers will say in 2000 George W. Bush didn't really beat Al Gore and Lieberman, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, but that controversy only adds to the oddity of this night at the convention.
Lieberman addressed the convention for 15 minutes in its prime-time closing segment. President Bush appeared via satellite shortly before the national television networks broadcast their prime-time coverage.
Speaking from the White House and looming on a video screen above the delegates, the president compared John McCain’s Democratic opponents to the Vietnamese who broke his arms after he was shot down.
“If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain’s resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will,” the president declared. (Parts of Bush's address were shown on tape by the broadcast networks during prime time.)
Lieberman followed — in person, not on a video screen — with an appeal to Democrats to transcend their party affiliation and vote for his friend McCain.
Using Bill Clinton to beat Obama
Lieberman even had the chutzpah to employ Bill Clinton in an attack on Democratic nominee Barack Obama.
It was the oddest spectacle of this night: a hall full of Republicans — the very people who had moved to impeach Clinton — applauding their old demon, but only in the cause of bashing Obama.
In the Senate, Lieberman said, Obama “has not reached across party lines to accomplish anything significant, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party to get something done.”
He asked the audience to contrast that with McCain's record.
“But let me go one further — and this may make history here at this Republican convention," he added with a chuckle.
"Let me contrast Barack Obama’s record to the record of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who stood up to some of those same Democratic interest groups, worked with Republicans and got some important things done like welfare reform, free trade agreements, and a balanced budget,” Lieberman said.
Later Lieberman added it did not matter if you were “a Reagan Democrat, a Clinton Democrat, or just a plain old Democrat,” you should vote for the Arizona Republican.
A pro-choice anomaly
It added to the weirdness if one recalled that Lieberman had voted against Bush Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito in 2006 and against the 2003 ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, a ban signed into law by Bush.
At a convention where vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin personified the anti-abortion constituency of the GOP, Lieberman was the maverick with a zero rating from the leading anti-abortion group, the National Right to Life Committee.
Would Lieberman have preferred a starring rather than supporting role? Perhaps he would have, given his willingness to defy expectations and his seeming willingness to cause heartburn for his fellow Democrats.
A McCain-Lieberman ticket was a winter 2007 “fantasy baseball” notion after the duo addressed the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute on the need to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.
And after McCain clinched the nomination last spring, rumors swirled that McCain really did want Lieberman as his running mate.
But Lieberman’s address will be as close as he gets to the Republican vice presidential nomination.
Lieberman still caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.
He’s still accorded seniority by them and is chairman of a major committee. Unlike ex-Democrat Norm Coleman, the Minnesota senator who addressed the convention early in the evening, Lieberman never switched parties.
Lieberman may be forced out of the Senate caucus by his fellow Democrats, but he won’t likely walk out.
But Lieberman’s criticism of Obama and defense of Bush drives many Democrats to frustration and fury.
Watching on television was the man who defeated Lieberman in the 2006 Senate Democratic primary, Ned Lamont. Lieberman went on the beat Lamont in the general election.
“Joe continues to believe that he has a monopoly on patriotism and that those with a different view are not putting their country first,” Lamont said in an e-mailed comment to me after the speech. “Sen. Lieberman’s active campaigning would hurt McCain in Connecticut, and I am not certain that his campaigning helped Gore in Florida in 2000.”
He added Lieberman “was so over the top in his praise of Sen. Obama during our primary campaign in 2006; to call him a partisan empty suit two years later rings hollow to the people who know Joe best, the voters of Connecticut.”
But Republicans hope there are enough other Democrats and independents to make the Lieberman play worthwhile. McCain really has no choice: There aren’t enough Republicans for him to win the election.
On the convention flloor, Connecticut delegate Charles Chiusano, who lives in the suburbs of New York City, said an hour before Lieberman arrived at the podium that he was glad the Democrat was addressing the convention.
“It’s very good to be inclusive. In Connecticut, we are mavericks just like John McCain, and we vote for the person, not the party.”
But a Lieberman vice presidential pick, Chiusano said, “would have divided too much of the rest of the country who are not as open-minded as Connecticut is.”
Lieberman's appearance in St. Paul with the Republicans who worked to defeat him and Gore in 2000 is a symbol of the real purpose of these proceedings: to get to 270, the number of electoral votes McCain needs to win the presidency.
Some of those votes can be found in states that Lieberman and Al Gore carried in 2000, such as Pennsylvania, and some of them in Florida, a state that was decisive in 2000 and may be again on Election Day this year.
“I’ve had Lieberman at my house for a fund-raiser a few weeks ago,” said William Diamond, a delegate from Palm Beach, Fla., who is a transplanted New Yorker. “He visited my temple and spoke there brilliantly. He made a fantastic argument on behalf of Sen. McCain, and he says Sen. Obama is a risk for the Jewish people and the state of Israel.”
Diamond said Lieberman will give McCain an edge in Florida “especially among Jewish voters. He packs the synagogues and the delicatessens wherever he goes.”
Lieberman virtually took up residence in Florida in the fall of 2000 to keep the state in the Gore-Lieberman column in the Democrats. He may be back again this fall.