The Connecticut Senate Spectacle


What’s currently happening in the Democratic Party of Connecticut is either an ugly purge or a refreshing demonstration of grassroots democracy. Which side you take in this intra-party war reveals a lot about you.

By now, virtually everyone knows that three-term U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is in the fight of his political life with multimillionaire businessman Ned Lamont, with the decision coming shortly in the Democratic Senate primary on August 8. The chant from the Vietnam protest era went, “The whole world is watching,” but in the Nutmeg primary, the similar slogan is about another war, in Iraq.

Sen. Lieberman has steadfastly supported President Bush from the first inkling of possible war in 2002, to the actual Iraqi conflict in 2003, through the tragic loss of 2,500 American service men and women, and on to the current dark days of sectarian violence. Even more than Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Lieberman is Bush’s favorite Senate Democrat, and the President’s alleged kiss to Lieberman’s cheek at the 2005 State of the Union Address may prove the kiss of death. For if there is one thing that Democrats now hate worse than George W. Bush, it is the Iraq War, and Lieberman is inextricably tied to both.

The senator appears genuinely baffled by this political turn of events, and he stresses that on most of the hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights, he tows the party line. And after all, he was the party’s celebrated nominee for Vice President in 2000, and along with ticket-mate Al Gore, racked up 540,000 more votes nationally than the GOP ticket. “Where is the love? Where is the loyalty?” wonders Lieberman.

By contrast, the once obscure Ned Lamont has become a phenomenon, a modern-day Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or maybe the new Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in the 1972 movie, The Candidate, or even the never-seen independent presidential contender Hal Phillip Walker in Robert Altman’s wonderful movie spoof of politics, Nashville from 1975. When appearing July 31st on “The Colbert Report,” a trendy left-wing late-night comic show, the producers reported that Lamont was cheered more than any guest in the show’s history. Lamont has no real political experience, didn’t come up through the ranks of officeholders, and isn’t well versed on many vital issues–but none of it appears to matter. He can spend freely from his fortune, he’s cheered on by the lefty half of the blogosphere, and the momentum is his (and Joe-mentum is on life support).

Most of our Nutmeg State sources, once so sure Lieberman was a shoo-in, now believe Lamont could pull of the year’s premier upset. If Lamont wins, maybe it won’t matter, since Lieberman has apparently gathered the necessary petitions to run as an Independent (or the Connecticut for Lieberman line) in November. With the undistinguished GOP nominee, Alan Schlesinger, a very weak alternative, most Republicans and Independents might go ahead and cast a ballot for Lieberman, enabling him to win–and, he says, continue to caucus with the Democrats. On the other hand, a Lamont triumph might change the polls in the insurgent’s favor, or Republicans might push Schlesinger aside and find an impressive nominee who could secure the 35 to 40 percent of the vote required to win a close three-way contest. No one can say just now. The vote totals on Tuesday will help point the way.

In any event, Joe Lieberman is paying for his “sins,” if you choose to characterize them as that. It’s not just Iraq. In 2000 he insisted on playing it safe and seeking reelection to the Senate while hoping for the Vice Presidency–a selfish move that could, under some very conceivable circumstances, have cost the Democrats control of the Senate. (If Gore-Lieberman had prevailed, the GOP Governor of CT would have appointed a fellow Republican to the vacant Senate seat, so that the eventual switch to the Democratic caucus by Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont in May 2001 would not have happened or at least would not have delivered the Senate to the Democrats.) Then Lieberman repeated the error this summer, by simultaneously seeking re-nomination in the Democratic Senate primary while collecting his Independent candidacy petitions.

Politics is a profession that rewards the taking of chances and the rolling of dice. In an odd way, the political fates can punish those who try to play it safe and arrange the system so that they cannot lose. Joe Lieberman is the newest proof of that axiom. Or he may be, depending on the results of Connecticut’s cataclysmic primary next week.