The Magazine

Joltin' Joe

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: Lieberman finally steps up to the plate.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Newark, Delaware

IT'S A CHILLY December morning, and Senator Joe Lieberman, Democratic candidate for president, is touring the floor of an M Cubed Technologies plant, yukking it up with workers and asking for their votes in the February 3 Delaware primary. M Cubed, which is headquartered in Lieberman's home state of Connecticut, manufactures the material used in bullet-proof vests, and the manufacturing process is loud . . . so loud that it's almost impossible to hear what Lieberman, wearing a pair of safety glasses that make him look oddly like the rock star Bono, is saying to employees.

Later, Lieberman's staff herds a small group of workers, along with assorted media types (reporters outnumber staff two to one), into the factory dining room, where it's easy enough to hear the senator. He delivers his stump speech ("We're never going to be strong in the world until we're strong at home," he says) and asks the employees if they have any questions.

One Gamecube employee tells Lieberman that, as a registered Democrat, he was "kind of offended" when Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean. What, he wants to know, was Lieberman's reaction to the news?

"I was surprised," Lieberman says. "But it only doubles my determination to keep fighting for what I think is right." The Gore endorsement, he adds, underlines the fact that he and Howard Dean are locked "in a fight for the heart and soul" of the Democratic party.

Meet the new Joe Lieberman. He was born sometime between December 9, the day Al Gore endorsed former Vermont governor Howard Dean for president, and December 13, the day the Americans captured Saddam Hussein. The new Lieberman likes to say those two events "crystallized" what's at stake in the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries. "I've got a cause," he tells reporters after the M Cubed staff has left the conference room. "I don't want to replace one divisive leader [Bush] with another [Dean]." The choice facing Democrats, he says, "is between me and Howard Dean."

Well, maybe. It's true that since Gore endorsed Dean, the Lieberman campaign has received 14 times as many contributions as normal. But the contributions were mostly in small-dollar amounts--the average contribution, according to one Lieberman aide, was $80.23. Lieberman can't match the sums raised by Dean's Internet "swarm."

Still, a Lieberman adviser says the campaign's strategy is to act as if the Democratic primary were a two-man race, and hope the media catch on. For the past two weeks, that has seemed to be happening: According to the media, the Gore endorsement and Saddam's capture have "galvanized" (the Financial Times), "energized" (the New York Times), and otherwise "bolstered" ( Lieberman's campaign.

Is the new Joe Lieberman really that new? Lieberman, after all, has long been one of Dean's most outspoken critics. Here he was in July: "Some in my party threaten to send a message that they don't know a just war when they see it, and, more broadly, are not prepared to use our military strength to protect our security and the cause of freedom." And here he was in August, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.: "A candidate who was opposed to the war against Saddam, who has called for the repeal of all the Bush tax cuts . . . I believe will not offer the kind of leadership America needs to meet the challenges we face today."

A few days before he visited Delaware, Lieberman stepped up his attacks, this time in a speech to workers at Electropac, a circuit-board manufacturer in Manchester, New Hampshire. Lieberman's staff had billed the speech as an economic address, but they tore it up in the hours after Saddam's capture, and broadened its scope to include foreign policy. Yet the overarching theme remained: Lieberman is the "anti-Dean" in the race. Lieberman mentioned Dean by name 22 times. He said Dean would take the United States "backwards." He said Dean had made "a series of dubious judgments and irresponsible statements" throughout the campaign.

Lieberman's differences with Dean on the Iraq war are familiar to voters, but his critique of Dean's economic policies is less well known, and the audience in Manchester perked up at the subject of tax cuts. Dean has said he would repeal all of the Bush tax cuts if elected president. (Of the major Democratic candidates, only Dick Gephardt has the same position.)

By contrast, Lieberman, taking a page from the Clinton playbook, would roll back only those tax cuts that benefit the affluent. "Remember the increases in the Child Tax Credit?" Lieberman asked the Electropac employees, becoming more animated with every sentence: "Under Howard Dean, it's gone. The new 10 percent tax bracket? Gone. The marriage penalty? Right back in place." The difference between Dean and Lieberman, the senator proclaimed, is "$2,700 for the average New Hampshire family."