Lieberman on the Brink

He struggles to survive a blog-fueled primary challenge.

Sen. Joe Lieberman

At the fund-raiser for Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont in Chester, Conn., on Sunday, it got very Brokeback Mountain very fast. A volunteer handed me Lamont’s campaign DVD, but the candidate wasn’t on the cover. Instead it was decorated with a heart-shaped picture of his opponent Sen. Joe Lieberman and President Bush mooning into each other’s eyes. Lamont is on the back, in a picture of the same shape, gazing at his wife. A popular button at the Sunday fund-raiser depicted Bush kissing Lieberman at the State of the Union in 2005.

Online liberal activists started e-mailing and linking to video of that kiss before Lieberman’s cheek was dry. For them it is the ultimate symbol of Democrats who have caved to the GOP. Lieberman is the chief capitulator, reviled for supporting the Iraq war and nuzzling up to President Bush on everything from energy policy to Social Security reform. This anger has fueled their support for Lamont in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary and made Lieberman’s race to win a fourth term one of the fiercest battles for the soul of the party. But while Lamont’s primary challenge has inspired a blizzard of blogs, it’s not clear whether the Greenwich cable company executive can catch on like the kissing video. Has he tapped into a winning political movement, or does he just have a bunch of supporters who can type quickly?

Ned Lamont certainly doesn’t look like the blogger candidate. Given how rabid some of the blog attacks on Lieberman have been, I expected their champion to appear with a knife in his teeth. But standing in blue chinos and a blue shirt in the gazebo on the town green, Lamont looked more likely to give a midterm than a stemwinder. He offered only a few mild hand chops as he presented some generalities about energy policy and education and made his case for bringing the troops home from Iraq and replacing Lieberman. The event was thoroughly conventional. Volunteers pressed Ned Lamont stickers on new arrivals, served wine and cheese, and encouraged the 200 or so supporters to take yard signs. No one even made any jokes about interring Lieberman in the old town graveyard across the road.

It didn’t feel like a Democratic Party revolution in the making, but the foundation of his campaign is certainly unusual. Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos with its 500,000 daily users, appears in a Lamont commercial. The candidate is the top recipient of netroots funds from ActBlue, the online fund-raising mechanism for Democratic candidates. When Lieberman posted a clumsy Web attack ad, Lamont’s supporters turned it into a YouTube phenomenon, with 35,000 viewings in a week. Centrist Democrats are fretting about the hostile takeover from the left. “You have a senator being punished by left-wing bloggers and activists who seek to kill him and bring his head to Washington on a pike to show all those centrists and moderates throughout the country who would wander from the liberal dogmatic line,” says former Connecticut state Democratic Party Chairman John Droney.

By traditional measurements, Lieberman should still feel confident. He won the endorsement of the state party last month, and Lamont trails by double digits in the polls. However, the polling gap is closing—Lamont is behind by 40 to 55 percent, but that is an improvement of 21 points in four weeks. And Lamont is winning endorsements from party veterans, including Jim Dean, brother of DNC Chairman Howard Dean. The challenger clearly has the momentum. He’s doing so well that Lieberman has had discussions with political advisers about running in the general election as an independent. Lieberman enjoys higher poll numbers among Republicans and unaffiliated voters than among Democrats. But abandoning the party would be a sign of political weakness and would threaten Lieberman’s committee assignments in the Senate. “He is really in a tough spot,” says one who has talked to him recently about his political predicament.

So far Lieberman has resisted the temptation to quit, but he may have to choose his route within the next few weeks. His equivocation risks alienating primary voters. If he’s going to leave, he should get on with it. The deadline to file the 7,500 petitions needed to run an independent candidacy is the day after the August 8 Democratic primary. But before the first signature is gathered, a written application has to be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office requesting the petitioning forms, which means if Lieberman is going to run as an independent, Democrats will know before they cast their vote.

While bloggers have had meager success backing candidates so far, what frightens Lieberman’s allies—and makes the race worth watching—is their success as giant-killers, taking down Dan Rather and Trent Lott. The August primary date will favor committed activists willing to interrupt their summer vacations, just the kind of die-hard liberals who have always had issues with the moderate Lieberman. Beneath the placid surface of the Sunday fund-raiser, that passion was easy to find. “Can you write ‘weasel’ in your magazine?” responded voter Charlotte Lazor when I asked for her views about Lieberman. Others offered “sycophant,” “sanctimonious,” and “Benedict Arnold” to describe their junior senator.

Lieberman’s sins range from siding with Republicans interceding in Terri Schiavo’s care to appearing (and smiling) on the Fox News Channel after Kerry lost the presidential election in 2004. *  But there is no bigger liability than his support of the Iraq war. While Lamont talked about other issues, it was his anti-war remarks that received the most enthusiastic response Monday night at the Norwalk Democratic Town Committee meeting. The Lamont supporters I talked to focused on the war first and foremost. “My presence here today has to do with the war, the war, the war,” said former Gov. Lowell Weicker, introducing Lamont in Chester. “I am not a Democratic activist. I am an anti-war activist.”

Weicker, a three-term Republican senator, lost to Lieberman before becoming governor as an independent. The Web ad that’s so popular at YouTube retools a cartoon Lieberman used in 1988 depicting Weicker as a sleeping bear, missing key Senate votes. This time, the ad—which appears on Lieberman’s Web site and was sent to some supporters—portrays Weicker as a decrepit cave-dweller still bitter over losing the Senate seat who forces Lamont, his whiny mini-me bear cub, into the race against Lieberman.

The ad has been roundly panned. It’s dated and juvenile. It’s intellectually confused. While the campaign has portrayed Lamont as a captive of the crazies on the left, the ad claims he’s a closet Republican. In short, it’s a perpetual PowerBar for Lamont’s supporters.

If Lamont has been unconventional and smart, Lieberman so far has been conventional and dumb. Fortunately for the far better-funded Lieberman, the race is a referendum on him, and he is widely respected and admired in the state. Those same polls that show Lamont rising also show that the majority of Democrats want Lieberman re-elected. If Lieberman runs as an independent, Lamont and his online supporters will face a stiff challenge—selling their message outside the liberal and anti-Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party. Can they get a mass of people energized who aren’t already with them? If they can’t, the Connecticut Senate race may be the place where Democrats learn first about the promise of blog politics, and then learn second about its limits.

Correction, June 21, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly said that Joe Lieberman voted with Republicans interceding in Terri Schiavo’s care. The Senate vote was a Sunday voice vote with only three Senators. Lieberman was not among them. He did however say he supported the effort. Return to the corrected sentence.