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Joe Lieberman: 2000 and 2006

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"Today, as some of us weep for what could have been, we look to the future with faith that on another morning, joy will surely come."

- Joe Lieberman, December 14, 2000

August 8, 2006 was not the first time that Joe Lieberman found himself on the wrong side of the official vote tally.

You may remember Florida, in November 2000.

It's instructive to look at how Lieberman handled himself then -- when the outcome was actually unclear, and there was a legitimate, principled basis for continuing the fight.

The short version is this: In private and early on, Lieberman urged that the Gore campaign fight hard, on as many fronts as possible. But Lieberman didn't feel comfortable expressing this perspective publicly, especially as the Florida recount controversy dragged on. As days turned to weeks, Lieberman made a costly public statement that undermined the Gore campaign's ability to challenge potentially invalid ballots. As the crisis reached its denoument, Lieberman conveyed an air of defeat and acceptance, which helped undermine the remaining energy in the Gore camp. At all times, according to Jeffrey Toobin's definitive account, Lieberman was concerned with the conventional wisdom, and worried about offending members of the Establishment whose respect he treasured.

The 2000 experience suggests that, in the weeks and months ahead, Lieberman should face hard questions about how he can square his plans for an independent candidacy for Senate with his performance and attitude during the Florida recount.

It also suggests that -- however things may appear in the immediate aftermath of his stunning defeat to Ned Lamont -- he is very susceptible to peer pressure, if it is seriously applied.

In the early days of the Florida controversy, writes Jeffrey Toobin in "Too Close to Call,"

Lieberman did not share the advisers' reluctance to push forward on all fronts. This became a recurring theme of the post-election period: The Connecticut senator always sounded like a warrior -- in private settings. (Much to the frustration of the hawks on Gore's team, Lieberman sounded very different before the cameras.)

The media did describe Lieberman as a hardliner -- in the early days. In the November 22, 2000 USA Today, this appeared:

Throughout the presidential election stalemate, one close Al Gore adviser has never wavered in counseling the candidate to keep up the fight: running mate Joe Lieberman.

Two weeks ago, Lieberman urged Gore to retract his concession to George W. Bush after the television networks declared Florida too close to call. The former Connecticut attorney general later pointed out that Florida law called for an automatic recount. He also pushed Gore to demand manual recounts in three heavily Democratic South Florida counties.

As the vice president's point man on TV, Lieberman has refused to rule out more legal challenges if Bush still has a lead after hand recounts are completed.

However, because he in fact did not want to be a hardliner on TV, Lieberman made a major blunder on Meet the Press on November 18. At the time, Republicans were trumpeting a memo from Mark Herron, a Gore lawyer, saying that Democrats should challenge late arriving overseas ballots -- many presumed to be military ballots that would go for Bush-Cheney -- that lacked postmarks. (In fact, the postmark was a requirement -- although such ballots were also permissible if they were signed and dated no later than the date of the election.) Lieberman knew he would be asked about this -- indeed the Gore camp sent him to answer questions from Tim Russert for exactly this reason.

Here's what Toobin writes:

On Sunday morning, NBC's Tim Russert brandished the Herron memo and asked the senator right away whether Gore was trying to invalidate military ballots because of "technicalities."

"Let me just say that the vice president and I would never authorize, and would not tolerate, a campaign that aimed specifically at invaliding absentee ballots from members of our armed services," Lieberman said. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel generally."

Toobin comments:

Lieberman capitulated completely, ignoring several arguments that he might have made to defend the campaign's people in the field. First the rules either mattered or they didn't. At the same time the Bush operatives were fighting to prevent manual recounts to uncover validly cast votes, they were arguing that the rules should be stretched to allow overseas ballots to be counted. The Bush campaign shouldn't have been allowed to pick and choose which rules applied and which votes counted. Second the Herron memo dealt with all overseas ballots, not just those from members of the military -- and the Bush campaign itself had tried to exclude civilian absentee ballots because they lacked postmarks. Third, the Herron memo was right on the law (or at least more right than wrong). Here again the Gore campaign (represented this time by Lieberman) backed down from a confrontation.

This Lieberman statement ended up making a difference. "Emboldened by Lieberman's concession, Republicans returned to canvassing boards in counties that Bush had carried and asked that previously excluded overseas ballots be recognized as valid. There was no pretense of adhering to the rules."

By December, as the Washington establishment -- including many Democrats -- were growing impatient with the recount process, Lieberman retreated. Writes Toobin,

Of course, when the Republicans were blistering Gore as a sore loser and putative thief, the last thing the Democrats needed was another voice of circumspection and moderation, but that was all Lieberman was willing to be. Then, when the polls began their slight turn for the worse, Lieberman started to refuse to appear on morning shows, or on any program where he might be challenged. "I'm overexposed," the senator told the vice president's [Gore's] spokesman Mark Fabiani.

As the legal dispute over the recount moved to the Florida Supreme Court, Lieberman moved to reassure the Establishment that the Gore campaign would not drag things out. Reported the Baltimore Sun on December 6:

Al Gore's running mate appeared to signal yesterday that the presidential election fight could be over in the next few days, though Gore himself wouldn't say that he's thinking about conceding. ...

Lieberman's public comments, and those he made privately to Democratic members of Congress, appeared designed to reassure the party that Gore would not drag out his ballot fight indefinitely.

Then, as the controversy moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lieberman helped suck the remaining energy out of the Gore campaign -- not unimportant, because the atmospherics had a major impact on the final outcome. He told a Hartford radio station, in remarks widely reported, that he had already been working on a concession speech.

Senator Lieberman, it's time to get to work on another one.