Friday :: Sep 26, 2003

Lieberman's Post-Debate Attack on Clark-Future Battles Ahead?


by Steve

Is Joe Lieberman’s post-debate attack on Wesley Clark today a sign of desperation, or the discovery of a vulnerability in the General’s armor? The language used by Lieberman ("political convenience, not conviction") was particularly strong, but it was coming from a guy who is seeing his poll numbers tumble as Clark’s are rising. Yet will such attacks work with the core group of voters that both Clark and Lieberman are pursuing, namely the Party’s centrists and independents? And how do others fit in to this emerging battle?

Joe Lieberman on Friday accused new presidential rival Wesley Clark of joining the Democratic Party for "political convenience, not conviction" as the retired general came under increased scrutiny.

Lieberman's criticism, leveled one day after Clark emerged unscathed from his first debate, underscored how quickly campaign strategies are shifting in the wake of two political phenomena: Clark's burst upon the crowded scene Sept. 17 and Howard Dean's front-running, Internet-driven campaign.

Dean, a former governor of Vermont, was criticized over several issues in Thursday's debate while Clark was largely given a pass. The day after, Lieberman took issue with Clark expressing support for the Bush administration's policies in a May 2001 address to the Arkansas GOP.

"I was fighting (Bush's) reckless economic strategy while Wes Clark was working to forward the Republican agenda by raising money for the Republican Party," the Connecticut senator said.

Clark spokesman Mark Fabiani answered back: "I think Senator Lieberman is an increasingly desperate candidate and it's unfortunate that instead of articulating a vision for the future as General Clark has with his 'New American Patriotism,' Senator Lieberman is attacking other Democrats."

Lieberman's criticism suggests that he sees Clark as a direct threat, particularly in New Hampshire's primary where both are courting independents and conservative Democrats. Independents can vote in the state's Democratic primary.

"It shows you we now have a primary within a primary, between Clark and Lieberman for the center wing of the Democratic Party," said David Corbin, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "What you're going to see is Lieberman resting on his laurels as a conservative Democrat with centrist philosophies and Clark resting on his laurels of his (military) stripes, his military record — believing that his resume rather than philosophy will win over centrist voters."

Some Democrats said that by criticizing the former general, Lieberman and his rivals risk underscoring what Clark views as his strength — political independence that may appeal to voters eager for a candidate who can defeat Bush.

Lieberman has no choice but to go head-to-head with Clark for the center-right of the party, given that he has positioned himself from Day One as the Anti-Dean. Both the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics and Zogby polls of late show that Clark’s swelling poll numbers at this early stage are primarily coming at the expense of Lieberman and Kerry. Yet Kerry is not playing to the center-right of the party like Lieberman and is instead looking to be a broader-based candidate aiming to be around for the long haul. Lieberman however has seen his likely targets of opportunity for victories in the primaries challenged by Clark’s entry, and must take stabs at knocking Clark back to the pack, after seeing how he and the rest slept while Dean stole their cookies.

Will others follow Lieberman’s lead? Both Dean and Kerry also went after Clark's 2001 support for the Bush Administration today, although not as harshly as Lieberman did. Gephardt may wait to see how the attacks affect Clark’s numbers before attacking Clark himself. As for Dean, since the gain for Clark has come primarily at the expense of others, I don’t think Dean will engage Clark at this point more than what happended today unless he senses harm from Clark also. My sense right now is that Joe Trippi has got Dean where he wants him: staying above the rest focusing on Bush, and only shooting back at fellow Dems when he is attacked, like Gephardt’s assaults last night. (Dean's remark today that Bush isn't up to the job of the presidency is a great way to introduce the competency argument, BTW.)

Kerry’s dilemma is that he needs to start regaining some of the numbers he has lost to Dean and Clark, but how? No matter what many say, a loss to Dean in New Hampshire will not be fatal, as Kerry has factored in a loss there I believe already and will play the expectations game against Dean. The question is how well he comes in second. Since it will be an uphill fight to take supporters from Dean in advance of the contests, and because he is playing for the long haul, Kerry needs to look for other targets. I don’t think he’ll go after Clark yet beyond today's comments, and he obviously wants Clark to knock out Lieberman. As a result, I think Kerry must focus instead on issues and freely poach approaches from others that work.

For example, one of the great unaddressed issues of the Democratic campaign so far is the environment. We know that Gore failed at this in 2000 against a candidate who was truly vulnerable on the subject. While the environment is not a first-tier issue, it can be used effectively against the sorry record of the Bush Administration and its corporate links. Moreover, a pitch on protecting the environment can be linked to new alternate energy technologies and jobs, which Lieberman briefly touched on last night. The one question that Kerry handled very effectively last night was on energy and ANWR. He needs to make more of an emphasis in this area, as he seems very comfortable on these issues.

Secondly, I think Kerry should poach the language and focus employed by John Edwards on the issue of valuing work instead of wealth. As I have said in previous posts, Edwards is onto a winner here, but he is the wrong messenger due to his thin resume. Edwards succinctly last night listed the measures Bush has taken to reward wealth at the expense of work, and managed to also mention how important it is to protect labor. Focusing on protecting labor and the value of work can allow Kerry to emphasize his own program to save manufacturing in a free trade environment without seeming protectionist, while using that discussion to insert the concept of corporate responsibility that others grasp at.

These issues are sure-fire winners in the primaries and caucuses, where Kerry needs to make up ground at the expense of Gephardt, and Dean to some extent. By focusing on issues and poaching the good ideas of others, Kerry can play for time and speak to a greater audience and larger vision, while taking advantage of the emerging Dean/Gephardt and Clark/Lieberman dynamic.

Steve :: 4:35 PM :: Comments (16) :: Digg It!