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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.

The bloggers bring with them not only laptops and cash, but also vitriol. They have called Lieberman a "liar," a "weasel," a "wanker," "scum," and a "whiny ass titty baby," among other things. One Lamont supporter at O'Neill's wore a T-shirt he had bought on the Internet that read: "F-- Joe Lieberman." On July 4, marching in a parade in Willimantic, Lieberman was heckled and called a "warmonger" and a "traitor," according to press accounts. Also at the parade, Lamont supporters built a float with giant papier-mâché heads of Lieberman kissing President Bush, an allusion to an embrace the two shared at the 2005 State of the Union address. The float called Lieberman a "RAT"--a "Republican Apologist and Turncoat."

Such is the unanimity of contempt for Lieberman among a certain class of Connecticut Democrat that when I asked someone at O'Neill's whether he supported Lamont, the man--an Air America radio listener from Stamford named Joe--pointed to a button he wore on his cap. The button displayed the names of the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket. Lieberman's name had been blacked out.

The news gets better for Lamont. Last week, Lieberman announced that, if defeated in the primary, he would still run in November as a "petitioning Democrat." The phrase is the senator's way of staying in his party even if it rejects him. But it is just a phrase. As the bloggers point out, Connecticut law stipulates that only one Democrat can appear on the ballot. Lieberman would have to create a new party--one forbidden from incorporating under the name of an existing party--or run as an independent.

For the bloggers, Lieberman's announcement upped the stakes. Moulitsas began to keep a "whip count" of those national Democrats who have said they would support the primary winner--no matter who he is. On July 6, Moulitsas's list included John Kerry (who even declined to endorse Lieberman in the primary), Al Gore, Russ Feingold, Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Bob Menendez, and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.

Also on the list was New York senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, whose husband worked on Lieberman's first campaign and whose every utterance is treated as if it were a pronouncement from the Oracle at Delphi. "I want to be clear that I will support the nominee chosen by Connecticut Democrats in their pri mary," Clinton said in a prepared statement. Recently, and perhaps not coincidentally, Sen. Clinton hired a blogger, Salon.com writer Peter Daou, to work for her Friends of Hillary political action committee.

Lieberman has his defenders--including, one must re member, most of the likely Democratic primary voters (at least for now). Among national Democrats, Lieberman draws support from his senior colleague Chris Dodd, Delaware senator Joe Biden, California senator Barbara Boxer, Colorado senator Ken Salazar, Nebraska senator Ben Nelson, and Arkansas senator Mark Pryor. With the exception of Dodd and Boxer, all are moderates. Biden and Boxer plan to campaign for Lieberman, but otherwise support from these sources has been tepid and limited to endorsements.

Among the major interest groups, the AFL-CIO and the Human Rights Campaign have both endorsed Lieberman. Among bloggers, his most vocal, and perhaps sole, non-Republican supporter has been Marshall Wittmann, whose zig-zagging career trajectory--from the Christian Coalition to the Heritage Foundation to Sen. John McCain's staff to the Democratic Leadership Council--places him at a far remove from most Daily Kos readers. The feeling is mutual. Wittmann calls the progressive bloggers the "nutroots."

Lieberman's problem is that his most ardent defenders are Republicans, including talk show host Sean Hannity and liberal congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut. It is no stretch to say that Lieberman is every Republican's ideal Democrat, for reasons extending from his stances on some issues to his general demeanor and outlook on public life. "It's all Republicans who come up to me and say, 'I can't believe you're going against Lieberman,'" one Democrat from New Canaan told me. She added that such encounters have only hardened her support for Lamont.

At the beginning of last week's debate, Lieberman said, "Ned Lamont seems just to be running against me based on my stand on one issue, Iraq." That sentiment has been echoed throughout the campaign. Media coverage portrays the primary fight mainly as a contest between hawks and doves.

But the truth is the bloggers' critique of Lieberman is more sophisticated than that. Each of the Lamont supporters I met at O'Neill's pub ran through a long chronology of Lieberman's crimes against the Democratic party. More often than not, these begin in 1998, when Lieberman scolded President Clinton on the floor of the Senate, and pass through 2000, when he declined to give up his Senate seat after joining the presidential ticket, before detouring in 2002, when he picked a public fight with Gore over campaign strategy, and then careening toward November 2004, when he appeared on Fox News after John Kerry's loss and "smiled," before arriving in 2005, when he held open the idea of compromise with Republicans on adding personal retirement accounts to Social Security, lent support to the Republican congressional intervention in the battle over Terri Schiavo, and voted for the "Cheney energy bill." Finally, the Nedheads end up with last winter, when Lieberman voted for cloture--allowing a final vote to proceed--on the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. Iraq is only one count in this indictment.

Yet it is important. Lamont himself traces the idea for his challenge to November 2005, when the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Lieberman backing the president's strategy on Iraq. Lamont favors setting a timetable for withdrawal, with a complete pullout sometime in 2007; in the debate, Lieberman called the timetable idea "dumb." He has left open the possibility of future American military bases in Iraq, which Lamont and most progressives oppose. The two campaigns spend more time attacking each other on Iraq than any other subject.

For Lamont's supporters, Lieberman's stance on Iraq, when combined with his other alleged faults, points to a larger issue: representation. The idea that Lieberman fails to represent Connecticut Democrats adequately is a constant refrain. The more prominent bloggers echo--and perhaps perpetuate--all these sentiments. On July 5, Moulitsas wrote on Daily Kos, "It's not just about the war." Then he added, "Lieberman's problem isn't with the party. It's with the voters. And they're not happy. And since he's representing them, he has to keep them happy."

The question is, Why aren't they happy? The fact is that Lieberman's reputation as a "moderate" or a "conservative" Democrat has always been exaggerated. He might have condemned Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky scandal, but he did not advocate impeachment and backed off quickly from censure. During the 2000 campaign, he was more than happy to distance himself from neoliberal positions he had taken previously on school vouchers and affirmative action, and then he waited two years before challenging Al Gore's "People vs. the Powerful" campaign strategy in which he had been a willing participant.

Lieberman has opposed all the Bush tax cuts, opposes a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, opposes the ban on partial-birth abortion, voted against Samuel Alito's confirmation on final passage, and opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He favors restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions and was a forceful advocate of the Kyoto accords. In both 2003 and 2004, he scored a zero from the American Conservative Union, according to the Almanac of American Politics. In 2004, National Journal rated his voting record on economic and social issues overwhelmingly liberal.

Look at it from this angle, and it seems the bloggers are trying to have it both ways. They say Lamont's campaign is about more than the war, and yet the major issue separating Lieberman from the Democratic grassroots is the use of American power in the service of American ideals, whether in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, or beyond. Indeed it was somewhat bizarre to witness how often Lieberman and Lamont agreed during last week's debate. Both praised the Supreme Court's recent decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which required the Bush administration to seek statutory permission from Congress before trying suspected al Qaeda operatives in military tribunals. Both said they were willing to go against party sentiment if they thought a particular course of action was the right thing to do. Both said the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea was a failure. Yet the Nedheads hissed when Lieberman spoke, and applauded when their candidate said exactly the same thing.

There are two explanations for this apparent paradox. The first is that the true divide in the Connecticut Democratic party is not between hawks and doves but between a veteran, "establishment" politician and the grassroots supporters who feel the party has abandoned them and wish to reassert control. On July 5, Moulitsas expressed this sentiment on Daily Kos:

There are people who are sick of clubby DC disrespecting the Democratic rank and file. There are those in DC who understand and respect the fact that power resides with the people, and that the will of the voters must be respected. Then there are those who value power above all else, who don't think they should remain accountable to their constituents, and who will support the efforts of their colleagues to subvert the will of the people in order to keep their incumbency protection racket intact.

The economist and blogger Stirling Newberry also views the primary in this light. On July 6, blogging at www.tpmcafe.com, he wrote that the Lamont-Lieberman debate was "the breaking into the open of a war between establishment insiders and the base of the party." He went on:

This war is beyond ideology, it features progressive darlings such as [Sen.] Boxer going out for Lieberman, not merely pro forma supporting him. It featured a month-long weasel word-fest from Senator Chuck Schumer about whether the DSCC would back Lieberman if he ran as an independent. . . . America hates people who become Washingtonized.

This interpretation is somewhat persuasive, but it breaks down when you try to figure out who comprises the Democratic establishment. Isn't Ted Kennedy more establishmentarian than Lieberman? Isn't Hillary Clinton? Why aren't they targets? Howard Dean, the netroots' champion, is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Lieberman is the junior senator from Connecticut. Who is more "establishment"? The categories blur until they are devoid of meaning.

What increasingly seems to be the case, however, is that one's status as a member of the Democratic establishment is entirely dependent on how much attention one pays to the progressive bloggers.

The second, and more convincing, explanation for the furious assault against Lieberman in spite of his longstanding liberalism is that the assault actually has little to do with Lieberman. Its real target is George W. Bush. Each of Lieberman's alleged errors comes from siding with positions that the Bush administration also has taken. Since the Iraq war is the major project of the Bush administration, and since Lieberman supports that project, it stands to reason that the Iraq war would dominate the primary. For the progressive bloggers, the actual content of Lamont's positions on the issues is mostly irrelevant. What is most relevant is his willingness to oppose Bush and conservatives in general.

That is why the most popular campaign button among the Nedheads displays a photo of the moment when George W. Bush, after his 2005 State of the Union, embraced Lieberman and planted what appears to have been a kiss squarely on his cheek. It might as well have been a kiss of death, of the sort that Michael Corleone gives his treasonous brother Fredo in The Godfather, Part II. For Lamont supporters, the photo symbolizes all that is wrong with Lieberman's approach to politics. One volunteer told me that, when it came to Lieberman, "It always seemed that every time he reached across the aisle, he was compromising our side's principles." Another said she supported Lamont because "I want to vote for a Democrat."

In this view, ultimately a Democrat isn't someone who is pro-choice and for progressive taxation--like Lieberman. A Democrat is someone who opposes Republicans. One can be conservative on some issues and still have friends among the lefty bloggers--witness Moulitsas's support for former Reagan secretary of the Navy Jim Webb's campaign to unseat Virginia Republican senator George Allen. All that is necessary is a burning desire to defeat Bush and the Republican agenda. Lamont has that desire. However, in his more than 30 years in politics, Lieberman has demonstrated he favors compromise when he deems it necessary.

An underreported element of last week's debate is that Lieberman tacitly recognized this new political reality. While defending his position on Iraq, he also took great pains to say, "I know George Bush. I have worked against George Bush. I have even run against George Bush. But, Ned, I'm not George Bush." Then he played up those times he has stood against the administration: "The fact is that I have opposed George Bush on most of the major policy initiatives of his administration, from tax cuts for the rich to privatizing Social Security." (As the bloggers quickly pointed out, however, Lieberman's hedging on Social Security reform was different from outright "opposition.")

Then, in a far more audacious move, Lieberman attacked Lamont for compromising with Republicans. Years ago, Lamont was on his town council. Lieberman accused him of voting with the Republicans 80 percent of the time. Lamont seemed bewildered at this line of attack. In rebuttal, he said he had voted with Republicans on matters of "potholes and stop signs," not "things that are key to the Democratic party and what we stand for."

The attack seemed too clever for its own good, but in the end Lieberman won the debate. Lamont acted like a novice. He dodged a question about whether he'd release his tax returns, claimed--proudly--that illegal immigrants were among the students he taught in his volunteer high school class in Bridgeport, and said he'd like to ban earmarks but would bring home the bacon if elected to the Senate. "He was clearly nervous," Moulitsas wrote afterward. It was the consensus view of the liberal blogs.

Yet the fact that Lamont appeared less a polished debater and more an amateur concerned with the fate of his country may end up helping rather than hurting him. It was a typical irony of this turbulent and uncertain campaign that Lamont, the advocate of opposition, was timid and soft-spoken, while Lieberman, the advocate of compromise, was aggressive, even rude. Lieberman disobeyed the rules governing rebuttals and interrupted Lamont's answers several times. He seemed dismissive of his opponent--"Who is Ned Lamont?" he kept asking--and irritated at the idea of a contested primary. Smarting at the interruptions, Lamont got off his best line of the debate: "This isn't Fox News, Senator."

"Lieberman kept interrupting and rebutting," one of the liberal bloggers at MyDD.com wrote afterward, "but really didn't make any effective points. He started off angry, and ended angry." It is a testament to the new powers rising in the Democratic party and the ongoing polarization of American politics that if Lieberman had behaved toward Bush as he did toward Lamont, the kiss of death might never have happened, and his political career might be secure.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.