The Magazine

Kiss of Death?

Lieberman's unforgivable sin: He doesn't hate Bush.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Norwalk, Conn.

On July 6, the commuters stopping by O'Neill's pub on North Main Street here for a beer and a ballgame on their way home from work found themselves in the middle of a political rebellion. While the after-work crowd stood along the bar, drinking Stella Artois and carousing, watching the Yankees wallop the Indians on small television sets scattered throughout the premises, another group--quieter than the regulars, friendly and polite--sat at tables in the adjacent dining area, watching an other spectator sport: C-SPAN's feed of the first, and only, scheduled debate between Sen. Joe Lieberman, the three-term Connecticut Democrat and former vice presidential candidate, and Ned Lamont, the Greenwich cable magnate who is challenging him in the Democratic primary. The debate played on a huge television screen at the front of the dining area. Every so often, one of the nonpolitical types cast a suspicious glance in the direction of this second group--more than two dozen supporters of the Lamont insurgency.

As they watched the debate, the ladies sipped white wine. The men sipped draught beer. Those below drinking age--about three teenagers--were handed sodas. There were more than enough spicy wings and nachos and quesadillas and potato skins for everyone to enjoy. Occasionally, though, the Happy Hour crowd grew raucous, and the insurgents shush-shushed them until order was restored. And civility reigned.

With one exception. Shortly after 7 P.M., when Sen. Lieberman first appeared on screen, the insurgents hissed and booed. When Lamont appeared on screen--his eyes wide, his speech halting--the crowd erupted in cheers and whistles.

They had plenty to be happy about. That there was a debate at all was a victory for the "Nedheads," as they are sometimes called, and for their leader, who formally launched his campaign in March. That Lamont has also proven himself an able campaigner, with a quick wit and approachable smile, only adds to the Nedheads' joy.

Lamont's political skills were no sure thing. On paper, he is a caricature of a limousine liberal. His great-grand father was a partner of J.P. Morgan who accumulated dynastic wealth. His great-uncle, Corliss Lamont, was an outspoken pacifist and Socialist. He attended Phillips Exeter, then Harvard, then the Yale School of Management. In between his undergraduate and graduate degrees he dabbled in journalism at a small paper in Vermont. In his inherited fortune, in his elite schooling, in his antiwar politics, and in the demographic makeup of his supporters, he resembles no other American politician so much as Howard Dean--whose brother James, the chairman of Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group, is supporting Lamont's attempt to topple Lieberman.

This is the first time anyone has mounted a primary challenge to Lieberman in his 18 years in the Senate. And while the senator continues to enjoy a comfortable lead in the polls among likely primary voters, that lead is dwindling--from 46 points in early May to 15 points in early June, according to researchers at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. (In mid-June, the pollster Scott Rasmussen, using a smaller sample, put the lead at 6 points.)

The Nedheads must also be pleased at all the attention the national media have showered on the campaign. The media are interested in Lamont for two reasons. One is that his most vocal disagreement with Lieberman concerns the war in Iraq, which Lamont and nearly two thirds of Connecticut voters in the Quinnipiac survey oppose. From this angle, Lieberman's fate is a test case for the future of muscular internationalism in the Democratic party.

The other reason for all the exposure is that Lamont is a darling of the "netroots," the group of progressive bloggers and activists who are now the main source of energy on the American left. Markos Moulitsas, the most influential lefty blogger and the host of the recent "Yearly Kos" convention in Las Vegas--which drew two-thirds of the Democratic leadership (Nancy Pelosi cancelled at the last minute) and several potential presidential candidates--champions Lamont on his website, Daily Kos. More important, Moulitsas and other bloggers use their websites to raise campaign money for Lamont; exact figures are difficult to obtain, but a reasonable estimate is several hundred thousand dollars so far. This is a large number for bloggers, but not for Lamont, whose personal wealth is between $90 million and $300 million, according to financial disclosure reports. Last week, Lamont said he is prepared to spend $2.5 million of his own money in the primary.