Live from KSG – Joseph Lieberman Closes Hardball Series

The captivating Hardball series at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), hosted by MSNBC political analyst Chris Matthews, came to a close on December 15th with Democratic candidate Joe Lieberman (D-CT).

Harvard students, local community members, and political personalities have energized the John F. Kennedy Forum each Monday for the last two months, piling in to watch Matthews joke with, grill, and cajole the candidates on Hardball: Battle for the White House.

While the crowd lacked Howard Dean’s banners and marching band or Wesley Clark’s suit-clad supporters strategically positioned for the camera, both Matthews and Lieberman commented on the energy in the audience. Senator Lieberman, enjoying a recent boost in the polls thanks to his hawkish views and the capture of Saddam Hussein, entered ready to clarify his positions on Hussein, Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean, and why George W. Bush is ruining the country.

Matthews welcomed him by stating, “A perfect storm awaits you here tonight.” In the style that he has made famous, he launched the show by airing a video clip from the previous day’s “Meet the Press” and asked Lieberman to defend his comments on what should be done with the most famous prisoner on the planet. The candidate quickly stated his belief that Hussein should be tried in Iraq, and furthermore, that the Iraqi Tribunal should have the power to impose the death penalty. As Matthews has done throughout the series, he immediately contrasted the Lieberman’s position with Howard Dean’s. While responding to Matthews’s rapid-fire burst of questions, Lieberman paused, looked at the audience and retorted, “First, I should ask whether you’re available to go over there and question him, Chris.” Drawing on the audience laughter, Senator Lieberman appeared to let his shoulders drop a little bit, relax, and begin enjoying his banter with Matthews.

Lieberman’s campaign rhetoric has centered on being an independent-minded Democrat: pro-war, pro-free trade, critical of Hollywood’s marketing of sex and violence, and fiercely pro-environment.

However, a closer look reveals a more complex set of nuances in his positions. He disagreed with Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy because it did not go far enough to protect homosexuals in the military.

Lieberman’s economic plan would raise taxes on the wealthy and lower them for the middle class-generally not perceived as the argument of many in business community. As Lieberman appeared to relax, he began to take more control of the conversation and state his positions.

An audience member posed: “Now that Saddam Hussein has been captured, what are the prospects of having a Democrat in the White House? Lieberman quipped, “I thought you were going to ask me if I thought he was going to endorse somebody else” to a round of applause.

He then rephrased the question as: “I think you’re asking really, does this make President Bush somehow unbeatable? The answer is no.” The senator from Connecticut paused, clearly sensing this moment as an opportunity to clarify why he was running for president.

He began with, “I’m running for president because I love America and I hate what George Bush has done to it.” Lieberman outlined why he believes that an economic “recovery” that has left an additional three and a half million people of out work, two and half million more out of insurance, and kept 35 million in poverty is a “scandal.” He characterized George W. Bush’s presidency as “arrogant, one-sided, and unprincipled…in the sense of not being true to the American people.”

Finally, he managed to dig on Howard Dean’s assertion that capturing Hussein did not make the world safer. While the predominantly Democratic audience erupted in applause, Lieberman had lived up to his common characterization of being intellectual, quick on his feet, and long-winded.

Chris Matthews then moved to the other major political wind: Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean. While many have interpreted the move with mixed impact (really, how powerful can former Vice Presidents be?), Gore remains a centrist leader in the Democratic party, and many liberals are reminded of the fact that the ticket that he and Lieberman ran won more popular votes than Bush. In one of the funniest moments of the Hardball at Harvard series, Matthews screened last weekend’s Saturday Night Live skit of Matthews and Lieberman.

In responding to how he felt about his former running mate, Lieberman’s character responded:

“Well, Chris, it did sting a little when my former running mate endorsed Howard Dean. And yes, I was disappointed when my wife, Hadassah, endorsed Wesley Clark. And yes, I was a little miffed when my rabbi announced he was supporting Al Sharpton.

If you’re looking for someone who can energize the party, Joe Lieberman is that cat. I am a hard core, hip hop, rock ‘n’ roll candidate. But I bring in the noise and provide it as fiscally responsible. I shall bring in the funk as well.”

Lieberman deliberately and emphatically underlined his respect and support for Gore, and successfully maneuvered the conversation back towards his strengths: his position on the war and his ability to connect conservatives and liberals. In responding to Joseph Nye, Dean of the KSG, Lieberman succinctly outlined his plan to restore what he coined “soft power”–that ability to serve U.S. interests “through attraction, rather than coercion.” His plans included reconnecting with NATO, reinserting the U.S. as a proactive leader on global warming, and most ambitiously, building an international Marshall plan for the Muslim world.

This foreign policy plan certainly supports Lieberman’s assertion that his experience has prepared him much better than Howard Dean and that his social beliefs are more aligned with working America than Bush’s.

However, in an increasingly polarized nation, one of red states and blue states and the disappearance of the swing vote, Lieberman may find that he will not resonate with Democratic voters seething over conservative power. This conundrum may leave him well postured for a policy debate in a general election, but unable to energize his base to win the primary.