Even if the rumor is merely a self-contained unofficial thank-you leaked by the McCain campaign, the thought experiment is irresistible. Leave aside, for a moment, that the same man who ran against Dick Cheney could hardly be anointed to succeed him without alienating vast constituencies and powerful donors. Or that common wisdom dictates that McCain has to appease people on his right, not on his left (where Lieberman, on most domestic nuts-and-bolts issues, still resides). Instead, recall that McCain himself, before he tacked right, was once discussed as a novel but not improbable VP for Kerry, and cheered Lieberman’s own 2004 run. The more you watch the two, the less unlikely the pairing seems. Trippi, for instance, is sold: “McCain needs to do something to shake this race up.” If he picks a standard-issue Republican, “his coalition is not going to be broad enough to win.” The kind of general campaign McCain could run with Lieberman at his side would likely be Bloombergian: We’re tired of polarization, we’re managerial and results-driven, and we’re going to work together to solve the country’s problems. Picking a functional Democrat would also give the McCain campaign license to tear into Obama while claiming objectivity. “This is a nonpartisan election,” mugs Trippi, launching into an imitation of Lieberman as the vice-presidential nominee, “but let me tell you, the Democrats have nominated a young man with no experience!”
Lieberman insists he’ll keep his convention speech positive and won’t turn into this year’s version of Zell Miller, the ostensible Democrat from Georgia whose saliva-spraying screed at the 2004 GOP convention managed to scare even Republicans. “Look,” he tells me, “I like Obama, I was in the civil-rights movement, I went to Mississippi to register voters. I’m not going to attack Senator Obama.” (He brought up the same patronizing line, more or less, at the Agudath dinner.)
The truth is, Lieberman’s rhetoric has been getting sharper-edged as the weeks tick by. Lately, he has taken to calling Obama “young man” and drawing Cheneylike scenarios of terrorists’ attacking the U.S. early into the new administration, the better to spook voters with Obama’s perceived inexperience. His attacks, says Trippi, “have gone way off the reservation.”
Right now, whatever respect Lieberman still commands inside the party comes from his position as the guarantor of the Democratic majority. Every sign, however, suggests that at least a few Senate seats will flip to blue in November. Disregarding the long-shot vice-presidency, Lieberman would then find himself in an odd position if McCain wins the election. No longer needing him for the majority, the Democrats will be practically compelled to punish him in some way. After Lieberman endorsed McCain, the DNC took away Lieberman’s superdelegate status, shrinking his influence on Connecticut’s presidential primary process to that of a mere mortal. (In response, Lieberman didn’t vote in the primary at all.) As a next step, the Democratic Steering Committee, chaired by Harry Reid, could strip him of his committee chairmanship if the full Senate ratifies it. A more graceful way out for everybody, says one Reid staffer, would be for McCain to appoint Lieberman secretary of Defense. “Then we’re spared a difficult decision.” But that doesn’t seem likely. As Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a Lieberman friend, drily notes, “I’m sure Joe would agree that, given the Muslim settings of possible American military action, having a Defense secretary named Lieberman may not be the shrewdest American move.”
And what if Obama wins? Should the Democrats pick up fewer seats than expected, they might be forced to look past the McCain episode and keep courting, or at least tolerating, an independent Lieberman. According to more than a few friends and colleagues, Lieberman might enjoy continuing to be a free-floating agent of lofty principle. After his primary defeat at the hands of Lamont, friends say, Lieberman talked a lot about being “liberated.” Then again, if the Democrats feel less than forgiving, or have cobbled together a filibuster-proof majority, “it’s going to be very difficult for Joe to operate with the Obama White House,” says an insider. “I don’t know what he’ll be doing in terms of his party affiliation.”
Of course, the senator could always complete his narrative arc in style and re-reregister as a Republican. In the case of an Obama victory, this would probably mean joining an outgunned minority, and most party defections go the other way. But most politicians don’t endorse presidential contenders across party lines, either.
In fact, the Republicans have already come calling for their favorite Democrat more than once, and there are some signs that Lieberman is listening. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who flipped in 1994 to join the Gingrich Revolution, says Lieberman has chatted with him about his experience switching parties. “I’ve told him many times I’d love to see him in the GOP,” he drawls. “We’d have the majority right now.” The procedure itself, Shelby says, is purely symbolic. “You don’t have to sign anything. I just held a press conference and said, ‘I’m changing parties.’ It was the easiest political thing I’ve done in my life.”