The Negativity Trap

It will take more than anger to defeat Joe Lieberman.

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After Ned Lamont debated Joe Lieberman Thursday, it was hard to find Lamont’s blogger allies championing his performance like they meant it. There were no posts arguing that Lamont laid out his vision for leadership with a bold plan for universal healthcare, promoting education, and protecting the homeland. Instead, the blogs served up a torrent of negativity about Joe Lieberman’s performance and his multitude of sins. To plug their guy, the Lamont bloggers linked to John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal, who’d said the novice seemed polished for a first-time candidate.

Lieberman was aggressive, and a little snippy, and his body language suggested that at any minute he might turn to the camera and say, “Can you believe I’m on the stage with this yutz?” But the overwhelmingly anti-Lieberman response has as much to do with the dynamics of this closely watched race as it does Lieberman’s performance. Ned Lamont is less a candidate than he is a conduit. He gives those who dislike Connecticut’s junior senator an opportunity to mount new attacks against him. Almost every campaign to unseat a sitting senator is a referendum on the incumbent. But to get sent to Washington, Lamont needs to convince more than Lieberman-hating activists. He must convince those who aren’t anti-Lieberman to become pro-Ned.

It’s a testament to Lamont and the activists who support him that I’m moving the goal posts. He wasn’t supposed to get this far and now he’s clearly got Lieberman scared about a possible upset in Connecticut’s Democratic primary on Aug. 8. When I wrote about the race two weeks ago, Lieberman’s spokeswoman questioned my reporting that he was discussing running as an independent. Now he has announced that he will do so—a major concession that has put his Senate Democratic allies in a pickle. They all now have to produce an answer to the Lieberman question and must weigh, if they support their colleague, how much grief they can handle from the grassroots forces that have put Lieberman in peril.

The senator’s colleagues are all over the lot. Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Chairman Chuck Schumer say they are supporting Lieberman but are ducking questions about what they’ll do if he loses the primary. Anonymous aides say the leaders will support Lamont if he wins. Sen. Clinton has taken that position publicly. Sens. Biden, Bayh, and Boxer (say that three times fast) are stumping for Lieberman. John Kerry won’t.

Thursday night, Lieberman aggressively and effectively took after Lamont from the minute the debate started, a sign of weakness, not strength. It also seemed problematic for Lieberman, if he’s truly courting Democratic primary voters, to have used the standard Republican attack on Lamont, casting his anti-war positions as indecisive and presenting his own consistency as a virtue.

As for Lamont, he held his own for a rookie, but for me “polished” wasn’t the word that came to mind. There’s a reason bloggers have trouble talking about his charisma and passion believably. Lamont occasionally had the stunned appearance I most associate with former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Sometimes this made him look like an authentic newcomer. Sometimes it seemed the tank was empty. He made a good argument against earmarks but then seemed to charge that Lieberman hadn’t brought home enough pork. His answer on recent developments in North Korea was platitudinous: “Obviously, we can’t work North Korea alone. China, South Korea, and Japan are so key to everything we have got to do there. And working with them in a constructive way, with a constructive dialogue, we have got to get Kim Jong-il off of that murderous path that he’s got.” Got that?

To pick up the unaffiliated and moderate Republican voters he’ll need to win the general election, should he survive the primary, Lamont is going to have to appear more confident and well briefed. He’s going to have to offer a narrative for his election and why Lieberman should go. The arguments Lamont has understandably used so far—that Lieberman has undermined the party—won’t work for voters who don’t care about the party. And Lamont’s unpolished newcomerism won’t win over people who like Lieberman’s experience and stature.

Since political observers have come to see this race as a test of the power and limitations of the blogging class, this new political force faces as much a challenge as Lamont does. There’s sensitivity among online activist to the charge that they’re merely angry. Their critics use this claim to characterize them as an unthinking horde. But it has always been easier in politics to tear down an opponent than to inspire. So, which will the bloggers do now? Will they limit their role to delivering repeated blows to Lieberman, as they did after the debate Thursday night? Or will they be able to transfer all of their passion into making the case for Lamont in a way that is convincing and doesn’t sound like mindless boosterism?

As Lamont finished his closing statement Thursday night, he said, “I don’t want you to vote against somebody, I want you to vote for somebody. I want you to vote for your dreams. I want you to vote for your heart.” That was a start. Will bloggers hear the message and be able to sell it, too?