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A Defense of Lieberman

Why Joe was successful in making the case for McCain at the Republican convention

We asked John Avlon, author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Policy Director for Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign, to give us an insider’s perspective from the Republican convention:

The crowd in the convention center loved Fred Thompson's speech--the drawling delivery, the good ole boy character witness. Joe Lieberman doesn't have much charisma, but I'm betting that his speech last night will be remembered by history, if not his immediate audience.

Step out of this spin cycle and it's clear that the real news out of last night was the Democrats' 2000 VP nominee eloquently endorsing a Republican for president. The fact that he did it at a time when the tide has turned the GOP would have led many a more cautious politician to holds their tongue. If McCain loses and the Democrats gain even a hair more than a filibuster-proof majority, Joe Lieberman will be kicked to the curb. Democrats have lost no time in condemning his actions--New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson described it as a "violent transformation" on CNN. But there was noting violent about Lieberman's speech--especially compared to Zell Miller's fire-breathing Dixiecrat endorsement of President Bush in '04. Instead, it was civil discourse targeted at a centrist audience, making the case for John McCain.

Lieberman laid out the most compelling argument for independent voters--one that the McCain campaign has made only incompletely: that for centrists, John McCain's record is as good as it gets, no matter what the Democrats' attack ads say. "If John McCain was just another go-along partisan politician," Lieberman argued, "he never would have taken on corrupt Republican lobbyists or big corporations that were cheating the American people or powerful colleagues in Congress who were wasting taxpayer money, but he did. If John McCain was another go-along partisan politician, he never would have led the fight to fix our broken immigration system or actually do something about global warming, but he did."

Here is the amazing thing: This litany of accomplishments is considered a heretical hanging offense by conservatives of the Tom Delay variety, but it was greeted by applause. The base of the party has warmed to John McCain as the nominee--maybe in belated recognition that he is the only Republican candidate who has a shot at keeping the White House this year. What many of the professional partisans in the GOP still fail to understand is that McCain is polling ahead of the Republican brand because of his principled independence, not in spite of it.

Lieberman is best positioned to make this general election sale because of his beyond-partisanship perspective. Along with Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has provided the most visible face to the emerging independent center of American politics.

Lieberman's endorsement of McCain in New Hampshire proved to be one of the pivotal if underappreciated moments in this endless campaign. At that time, many believed John McCain's candidacy to be over--it had been running on fumes for months. Lieberman helped McCain regain credibility with Independents that ultimately led him to victory in the Granite State Primary --an open primary in a state where Independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans--and then the momentum to go on and win the nomination. Now his defense of that decision makes it harder for Democrats to label McCain as Bush III.

No matter who wins this election, it will be a repudiation of Karl Rove's play-to-the-base politics and the many excesses (ideological, corruption, and unprecedented pork-barrel spending) of Tom Delay's Congress. McCain actually has the political scars to prove that he has opposed these conservative contortions from the beginning. And the better-angels-of-our-nature oration by Joe Lieberman helped remind independent voters of that.

By John Avlon