Unlike George W. Bush, who is widely hated on the left but still embraced by many supporters (I continue to see those ovoid W '04 bumper snickers on cars) Lieberman has few real friends.
His situation really is analogous now to that of Lester Maddox, as I wrote some weeks ago.
But it's important for us to ask why this is, in order to put Lieberman (and Maddox as well) into proper historical context.
As the title of this piece states, Joe Lieberman considers himself to be the Last Kennedy. Not as in Teddy Kennedy, or any of the Kennedy children, but in terms of the original politics of John F. Kennedy.
In all the ritual hatred of Kennedy as meaning "liberal" the fact is that John F. Kennedy won election by going to the right of Richard Nixon on national security. He talked about there being a "missile gap" with the Soviets, and promised to be tougher on Castro. His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- the perception was he saved the world and forced the Soviets to back down -- won his party victory in the 1962 mid-terms (and seemed to bury Nixon under California Governor Pat Brown, Jerry's dad.)
While historians will always debate whether Kennedy was indeed ready to walk away from South Vietnam before his assassination, the fact is that he was engaged there, in what Robert McNamara later called "a cold war activity," until the day he died.
At the same time, Kennedy was ready to confront the wrongs within his own party. It's important to remember that, when Kennedy forced George Wallace to back down from the schoolhouse door, they were members of the same political party. And it was Kennedy's courage in doing that which destroyed the New Deal coalition, not Vietnam. Or so I'm convinced Joe Lieberman believes.
It is this Kennedy whom Joe Lieberman considers himself to be the political heir of. The Kennedy who was tough on foes and friends alike, who said the right thing and tried to do it. I think that to Lieberman Kennedy's own heirs, both family and political, betrayed this legacy. They rejected JFK's Cold War premises and embraced full-throated liberalism, which Lieberman finds dangerous in its attempt to right past wrongs with what he sees as new ones.
Whatever you think of Joe Lieberman (and I'm on the side that dislikes him) he has an historical perspective that is valid. It's just that it's a full generation old.
And he's not alone in this. There are many Lieberman Democrats and Bloomberg Republicans in the Northeast today, urging Unity (under their own leadership of course) who consider themselves the balance of power for the next generation. Their unwavering support of Israel, and an aggressive Middle East military policy, is just as unpopular with the masses of Democrats today as Lester Maddox was a generation ago.
But it was the movement of Maddox and other racist Democrats into the Republican party as part of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" that gave us the politics we have today, and that is a real threat. This is why John McCain considers himself a valid historical figure. If he can bring Lieberman and his followers with him into the GOP, despite the unpopularity of their politics among Democrats, he can form a new generational coalition.
This is what happened with Lester Maddox. He was misunderstood in his own time, and remains so.
Maddox considered himself a populist, in the William Jennings Bryan mold. He was overtly religious, he held simple values, and he remained throughout his life against "the Wall Street crowd." The racism that brought him power was never as deeply felt as it appeared. It was a reflex action. In fact, later in his life, he rejected it.
It's important to note that Maddox, in 1966, was a generation removed from Bryan's 1925 death, just as Lieberman is a generation removed from the 1963 death of John F. Kennedy. Maddox in 1966, in fact, was 41 years removed from Bryan's death, Lieberman today is 43 years removed from Kennedy's.
Looking backward, and going forward from an old political Thesis, is common. What moves us when we are young can still move us when we are old. It's the obsolescence of the old ideas that most strikes others. But historically it's also important that we note the ideals, and where they came from, and how they were forged, and how uniquely American they are. That's the only way to beat them.
We can't confront Lieberman with the age of the history moving him, any more than we could confront Lester Maddox then. But we can confront one another with it, and teach our children about it, and show them that while the past may be a guide, it is not an order.
Looking ahead is the only way toward progress. If Joe Lieberman were a car executive he'd be running Ford into the ground. Lester Maddox, who actually ran a restaurant, could have been Harland Sanders if he'd had vision, but he didn't, and wasn't.
Vision is what we need to break the shackles of history binding men like Joe Lieberman.