As readers of this blog know, I’m a big Joe Lieberman fan. I’m big on John McCain, too. And Lindsey Graham. I like people who take principled stands — in favor of fighting terrorism even when it occurs in Iraq, or instituting rational immigration reform even when it means being fair to Mexicans — and stick to those stands, even when the ideological nutjobs in their respective parties are skinning them alive for doing so.
So I had to smile when somebody who works for Edwards — feeling compelled, to my surprise, to respond to my column, which turned out to be a WAY bigger deal than I would have expected — dismissed my obserrvations by saying we endorsed Lieberman in 2004:
Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz suggested the editorial is a farce and noted that columnist Brad Warthen of The State newspaper, based in Columbia, S.C., endorsed Joe Lieberman a day before the Connecticut senator dropped out of the Democratic primary race in 2004.
I smile because I essentially browbeat my colleagues into endorsing Joe, in a three-hour talkathon in which I just plain wore them down, on the very day we had to write our endorsement and put it on the page (John Kerry had not come in until that day, and Howard Dean had requested a second meeting — the one mentioned in the anecdote in my column — so we couldn’t have our discussion until then).
And you know, some of those colleagues drew the same connection as Mr. Schultz — they said the fact that Lieberman was going to get creamed in the S.C. primary had something to do with whether we should endorse him. As I respect my colleagues, I respect Mr. Shultz’s observation. But the two fact had nothing to do with each other in my mind. To me, it didn’t matter whether Joe got a single vote, as long as he was the best candidate in the field. And he was.
Anyway, for your nostalgic pleasure, I hereby copy the column I wrote explaining that editorial decision. I wrote it to exculpate my colleagues as much as anything. I didn’t find endorsing Joe embarrassing after his loss, but I sensed that they did. So I explained how it happened. I do stuff like that. I was doing that this morning — and everybody freaked. I guess that’s because it became a national story and the national folk don’t know me. Anyway, here’s that column:
The State (Columbia, SC)
February 8, 2004 Sunday FINAL EDITION
HERE’S WHAT WE LOOK FOR IN A PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
BYLINE: BRAD WARTHEN, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Pg. D2
LENGTH: 972 words
IN THE COUPLE of months leading up to last week’s Democratic presidential primary here, most of the candidates came by our offices for interviews with the editorial board. In chronological order, they were Dick Gephardt, Carol Moseley Braun, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Howard Dean and John Kerry.
The moment John Kerry left – on the Friday afternoon before the primary – we gathered to make a decision on our endorsement, which would run that Sunday. Present were Publisher Ann Caulkins, Associate Editors Warren Bolton, Cindi Scoppe and Nina Brook, Editorial Writer Mike Fitts and yours truly.
It took us almost three hours. For much of the first hour, no one mentioned any candidate by name. Instead, we spent that time discussing the criteria that we should use in making our decision. The points we set out are worth relating because they are relevant not only to the decision we make in the fall on the presidential race, but in some cases to other endorsements we make.
Mike Fitts, who has had primary responsibility for tracking this race for us, started us off, and pretty much mentioned all the main parameters. With the caveats that some criteria would militate against others, and that no candidate was likely to be the best on all counts, he said that based on what we have written and said in the past, anyone we endorse for president should:
- Be someone that we, and a consensus of South Carolinians, would be comfortable with philosophically. We have well-defined positions on most issues; so do the candidates. Intellectual consistency would demand that we look for as close a match as possible.
- Recognize that national security, while not everything, is certainly the first and foremost responsibility of the job. More particularly, given our position, we wanted someone who would be fully committed to bringing positive change to the parts of the world that most threaten national and collective security.
- Think for himself rather than adhere to any party’s narrow ideology. We favor people who work across lines and are intellectually diverse.
- Have relevant experience in elective office, which is particularly valuable in itself. A candidate might be a natural-born leader and have all the vision in the world, but probably would not achieve much in office without having mastered the give-and-take of politics.
Finally, Mike raised a question: In a primary, to what extent do we take into account whether someone would be the best standard-bearer for his party?
As we went around the table, Warren gave probably the best answer to that one: "We ought to be thinking about who can be the president of the United States, regardless of party affiliation." Nina and Cindi said much the same, with Cindi adding that everyone should feel free to vote in our state’s open primaries. (This was before we knew about the loyalty oath, which fortunately was dropped at the last minute.)
Warren wanted to make sure we agreed that no one criterion should be a disqualifier, noting that while elective experience is worth a lot, it’s not everything. "People bring other things to the table," he said.
To Mike’s list, Nina added that we should also not be afraid to be a conscience for the state, even when we’re a little alone.
I thought Mike and the others had summed it up fairly well, but added two criteria that have long guided my own thinking:
- Endorsements should always be about who should win, not who will win. We should endorse the best candidate, even if he or she doesn’t have a chance.
- Presidential endorsements are a different animal. With most local and state races, readers have few or no other reliable sources of information on the candidates. With the presidential contest, they are inundated. They will usually come to our endorsement with a well-informed opinion of their own. Therefore our endorsement takes on a more symbolic value; readers can use it as a guide to see whether they want to trust our judgment on the candidates and issues they know less about.
Finally, of course, we got around to discussing the candidates themselves. We quickly narrowed it down to Sens. Edwards, Kerry and Lieberman. That’s when the hard part started.
Once again, Mike helped define the dilemma before us, logically and mathematically.
He divided the field of three into three overlapping sets of two, with each pair having advantages over the remaining candidate. That sounds complicated. Here’s what I mean:
- Sens. Lieberman and Kerry had the distinct advantage on experience.
- Sens. Kerry and Edwards had more dynamic leadership skills – important in a chief executive.
- Sens. Lieberman and Edwards were closer to us and South Carolina politically.
A three-way stalemate.
Still, to me at least, it seemed clear that Joe Lieberman came out ahead on most of Mike’s criteria – good philosophical fit, sterling national security credentials, by far the one most willing to work across party lines, and a distinguished 30-year record of public service.
The sticking point in our discussion was over one of my criteria: The one about who should win versus who will win. We all knew Sen. Lieberman had little chance of surviving beyond Tuesday, and there was considerable sentiment for using our endorsement to boost someone with a better shot. That would have taken the form of either affirming Sen. Edwards’ front-runner status or giving a boost to Sen. Kerry.
In the end, we stood by Joe Lieberman. I’m glad we did.
I share all of this because, even though our guy is out of the race, the same criteria we used will be applied as we look toward November. And while many readers say they just know who we’ll endorse, they’re ahead of me. Based on the criteria we use, it remains a very open question.