10/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lieberman Nailed It

You've got to hand it to Joe Lieberman. He has totally absorbed the "How to Be a Republican" training. For one thing, he seems to have learned a core GOP insight of which most Democrats remain ignorant: that for the overwhelming majority of voters, a candidate's character is far more important than their issue stances. And so, he best articulated what will be John McCain's argument heading into the fall.

You may not agree with John McCain on every issue. But you can always count on him to be straight with you about where he stands, and to stand for what he thinks is right regardless of politics.

This was also Bush's core argument in 2004:

"Whether you agree with me or not, you know where I stand, what I believe, and where I am going to lead."

After the 2004 election, Bush Communications Director (and current McCain spokesflack) Nicolle Devenish Wallace cited that single line as "the most important words we uttered in the campaign" in a forum held by the Annenberg School.

From 2000 to present, Democratic policy positions on almost every issue were and are more popular than Republican ones. But Republicans know something Democrats don't: voters don't vote on the issues, so you might as well do what you believe and portray yourself as a strong leader - and try and actually translate your values into law.

Indeed, for a statistical analysis for my book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party, I teamed up with Wharton professor Gregory P. Nini to analyze more than 20 years of exit polls from the National Election Survey and found that candidate issue positions account for only six percent of election outcome.

In comparison, economic conditions account for 15 percent of a voter's decision; a voter's perception of a candidate's personal qualities (particularly whether or not the candidate is considered a "strong leader"), 16 percent; and a candidate's party a whopping 33 percent (Republicans tend to vote for Republicans and Democrats for Democrats).

Many Democrats don't understand this most basic political science. As a result, they obsess over the latest opinion swings when coming up with their platform, rather than fighting for what they believe. Even though their policies are popular, they come off as untrustworthy hacks.

This is especially true when facing John McCain. For all Lieberman's talk about his Straight Talk Express, the reality is that it's become more of a Zig Zag Local. His desperate attempts to appease the Bush establishment have caused his policy positions to swing far more widely than even the most craven of Democrats. To attack him for his unhinged, random, and reckless decision making, Democrats need to offer a steadfast contrast. Obama has certainly started. Keeping in mind Joe Lieberman's message will make sure we finish that way too.