I won't have floor seats this time. But that's not the only thing that changed when my former boss, Sen. Joe Lieberman, addressed the nominating convention of a major political party this week.
He was at a different party entirely.
While some of his Democratic colleagues have expressed anger at this switch, my vantage is a little different. I keep remembering another time when he took a convention stage.
For 10 years, I had the privilege of serving as Lieberman's chief of staff, until I left his office in 2003. I've been running through some of the senator's greatest hits during that decade.
Once cheered, now booed
I'm remembering that hot day in August 2000 when a small group of Lieberman staffers joined a cheering crowd of thousands in Nashville to watch Vice President Gore and Sen. Lieberman appear together for the first time as a ticket. Rather than recycle the usual political attacks and rhetoric, my boss used his speech that day to talk about his faith and give thanks for the opportunity to serve his country. He expressed his gratitude toward Al Gore for making history by choosing him.
After a whirlwind week, we found ourselves at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Sitting in the Staples Center that night, I was surrounded by a sea of signs reading only, “Hadassah.” The look on the senator's wife's face and the emotion in the auditorium that night brought me to tears. Imagine: the daughter of Holocaust survivors addressing the entire world. “Only in America,” as Joe Lieberman often says.
Because the senator was addressing Republicans this week, I've been thinking about another time he squared off against a Republican: his vice presidential debate with Dick Cheney. Conventional wisdom now sees that debate as somehow a victory for Cheney, but no one much other than Cheney staffers expressed that view that night. Rather than engage in pointless and ad hominem attacks on each other or their respective presidential candidates, the two candidates had done what most Americans hope their leaders will do when they sit down to debate – they'd conducted themselves like adults and had a respectful, wide-ranging conversation about the challenges facing our nation.
We lost that election, of course, but after the final Supreme Court decision in December, Lieberman was one of the most popular elected officials in the United States. He couldn't walk through an airport without being mobbed. Once, autograph seekers surrounded him at the San Francisco airport; just a few feet away, football star Joe Montana passed by alone, unrecognized by the throng.
Since that trip, I've left Capitol Hill, and Lieberman has run two difficult campaigns. His 2004 presidential bid didn't get far. And in 2006, under the unrelenting attacks of left-wing bloggers and a liberal, novice opponent with essentially unlimited personal money to spend attacking him, the Democratic voters of Connecticut narrowly denied the senator renomination to the Senate. This blow to such a decent man and capable senator was deeply disappointing.
While the Internet has had many positive effects on the political process the anger and vitriol that too often characterize the politics of the online community have had much to do with the decline in civil political rhetoric. Because elected officials feel compelled to cater to one side, and its online echo chamber, they all too often say only what their online world wants to hear.
That's a difficult thing to do when you're Joe Lieberman, a man who doesn't fit into anyone's neat categories. As a result, he has found himself attacked by both the liberal blog DailyKos and the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
Which brings us to this week.
Unwelcome and unpopular
The senator who just eight years ago had played a critical role in helping Al Gore close a double-digit gap in the polls, in a campaign that won the popular vote, spoke at the Republican convention on behalf of John McCain. This same senator who couldn't walk though an airport without being mobbed by Democratic supporters is now less popular in my party than a former Democratic senator who had a high-profile affair. When a reporter asked Democratic convention-goers who would be less welcome in Denver, Joe Lieberman or John Edwards, the unanimous conclusion was my former boss. The notion that his transgressions were somehow more egregious than Edwards's speaks volumes about today's political culture.
The people who are angrier at Lieberman see his sins as policy- and party-related. They're outraged that he's working so hard for the candidate of the opposing political party. In a deeply divided, red-vs.-blue town such as today's Washington, his transformation is tough to take. It isn't seen as a sign of a postpartisan, cooperative future that's good for everyone. It's seen as a betrayal.
Let's remember, though, that the Joe Lieberman who spoke at the GOP convention is doing what he has always done in public office — following the path he believes is in the best interests of the United States, regardless of the political cost.