The most exciting place on earth right now, oddly enough, is New Hampshire. For in that state today, 180,000 people may determine the next president of the United States.
Speak to a New Hampshire voter, and you’ll get his eager opinion on any and all candidates. A cashier at a sandwich stop in downtown Manchester told me that Howard Dean’s throaty war cry last Monday reminded him of an Adolph Hitler harangue. A man in Nashua pulled me aside to share that Senator John Edwards had won him over after he attended one of the senator’s proselytizing town hall meetings earlier that afternoon. “He reminded me of JFK except with a twang.”
So I decided to seek out the candidates myself, starting with the frontrunner, Massachusetts Sen. John Forbes Kerry ’66. The biggest media event on Saturday afternoon was a hockey game that the Kerry campaign orchestrated at the appropriately named John F. Kennedy Memorial Coliseum, christened after the senator’s political god. With Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” playing over the loudspeaker, Kerry joined some high school all stars, a few B-list celebrities (remember Scott Wolf from “Party of Five?”) and a few Boston Bruins alumni for an “exciting combination of hockey, family fun, and politics” according to a Kerry media release. The senator’s press flacks passed out copies of Windsurfer magazine, on whose cover the 60-but-looks-50 Senator appeared. Lamenting the staged atmospherics of the event to Michael Barone, I was told that the hockey game provided “dynamic visuals” for the nearly 100 television cameras and tomorrow’s papers. He may want to take that up with the spectator who told me that Kerry looked about as good in a helmet as the last presidential candidate from Massachusetts.
The biggest obstacle to Kerry’s beating George W. Bush ’68 in November is the facility with which Republicans will label him a Massachusetts liberal. Indeed, soon after Kerry’s come-back win in Iowa last week, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie gleefully pointed out that Kerry has a 93 percent voting record with the liberal rating group Americans for Democratic Action, 5 percentage points higher than his colleague, Ted Kennedy, a dinosaur of big government liberalism. “Who would have guessed it?” Gillespie said. “Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”
So I hopped on Kerry’s “Real Deal Express” to question Bob Shrum, a senior Kerry advisor and a kingpin in Democratic politics. How could John Kerry, so easily identified as Ted Kennedy’s partner-in-crime and Michael Dukakis’ Lieutenant Governor, ever hope to beat a popular sitting president? “Dukakis lost because he didn’t defend himself,” Shrum easily replied. Kerry has certainly learned from Dukakis’ mistakes, telling the president several months ago to “Bring it on.” Shrum continued by noting that “this guy is a decorated war hero” and mentioned Kerry’s career as a District Attorney in Massachusetts’ Middlesex County, where he “put people in jail.” Persuasive as these credentials may be, it will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a Democrat from Massachusetts with a voting record more liberal than Ted Kennedy’s to win the presidency come November.
For the rest of the weekend I trailed Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, who has emerged as a dark horse in this race and hopes to eke out a third place showing tonight. What has been most admirable about Lieberman during this presidential campaign is his refusal to back away from controversial issues that upset many Democratic primary voters and liberal interest groups. While running under the pressures of Al Gore’s class warfare campaign in 2000, it is true that Lieberman shied away from his non-traditionally left-wing views on issues like school vouchers and affirmative action. He received a great deal of criticism for these flip-flops, and deservedly so. But Lieberman is his own man now; he prefaces his stump speeches by telling audiences that he will level with them, and that they are bound to disagree with him on important issues. When a town hall participant told Lieberman that “you may not like the question,” she was about ask him, he replied, “You may not like the answer.”
On the issue that has become something of a deal breaker for many Democratic primary voters, Lieberman has been unrepentant in stressing his support for the recent war in Iraq, though not without criticizing the way in which the Bush administration led the nation into armed conflict and its handling of the post-war reconstruction. At a town hall meeting in Nashua on Saturday night, Lieberman proudly declared, “I don’t have a doubt that we are all safer with Saddam Hussein in prison and not in power” and received little applause from the audience. Later that evening in a room full of Democratic Party activists, Lieberman received a more positive reception for his paean to the recently deceased Captain Kangaroo than when he said that, he “[had] never wavered for a moment on how important it was to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” At the CNN studio in Manchester on Sunday morning, Wolf Blitzer first asked Lieberman about a statement from the government’s own former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, that the Hussein regime did not posses any weapons of mass destruction prior to the war. Lieberman answered, “For me, Saddam Hussein was a weapon of mass destruction,” and cited the dictator’s past use of such weapons, his known weapons programs, and the hundreds of thousands of innocents that Saddam had killed as justifying American military action. Lieberman also referred to Hussein as a “brutal, homicidal maniac.” Imagine those words coming from the mouth of the equivocating frontrunner in this race, never mind Howard Dean.
When I asked Lieberman why he continues to bring up the war, especially when his position on it is becoming increasingly unpopular amongst Democratic primary voters, he did not hesitate with an answer. “For me, it’s as much about [the issue] as the quality of leadership that I offer.” The buzz word for Lieberman’s campaign is “integrity.” One can find the word everywhere from his position papers to the campaign bus, “Integrity One.”
The focus of Lieberman’s message these past few days in New Hampshire has been electability. Lieberman tells Democrats that he is the only candidate able to unite all factions of the party and attract independents along with disillusioned Republicans. He told party activists on Saturday night in simple terms that “we can’t improve the lives of our people unless we win.” Lieberman may not excite a core group of activists like Howard Dean. After all, a message of moderation is hardly as “thrilling” for the liberal base as a tantrum of fury. His speaking style (especially when he tells crowds about his campaign’s “Joementum”) often comes off as strained and a bit cheesy. Yet skeptics overlook the fact that Lieberman excludes few voters, certainly far fewer than the irascible Dean or the aloof and liberal Kerry. He is a natural moderate who understands that politics works best when politicians work together. Lieberman notes that “Bush and Rove don’t have a playbook on me,” and it’s true. How do you go after Joe Lieberman? He’s the Walter Cronkite of American politics.
At the Nashua town hall meeting on Saturday, a local lawyer announced to the crowd that people are “not forgetting Joe Lieberman.” It was a cryptic, though entirely accurate, way to describe the New Hampshire response to the Senator’s campaign. Hopefully the voters will remember Joe Lieberman today.
James Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College.