Challenge to Lieberman Shows What’s Wrong With Politics

by Stuart Rothenberg May 22, 2006 · 12:03 AM EDT

I was struck by a two-sentence comment from Connecticut Senate hopeful Ned Lamont (D) that appeared a couple of weeks ago in a Washington Post article by Shailagh Murray.

Lamont, who is challenging Sen. Joe Lieberman for the Democratic Senate nomination in the Nutmeg State, was warned by a party insider that by taking on the incumbent, he was putting at risk a safe Democratic seat.

“But you are not going to lose a Senator,” Lamont said. “You’re going to gain a Democrat.”

So now we know the awful truth: Joe Lieberman isn’t a Democrat.

That’s the same Joe Lieberman, of course, who served, as a Democrat, in the state Senate and as Connecticut’s attorney general. It’s the same Joe Lieberman who rallied Democrats to knock off incumbent Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker (Conn.) in 1988.

It’s the same Joe Lieberman who was selected by Al Gore to be the Democratic nominee for vice president and who campaigned across the country for his party’s ticket and his party’s agenda.

Yes, it’s that Joe Lieberman who isn’t a Democrat, according to Lamont.

And who is Ned Lamont, the man who hopes to shock Connecticut’s political establishment this weekend at the state convention by drawing one-third of delegates’ votes? [Editor's Note: He received 33% of the delegates.] He is a graduate of Harvard and the Yale School of Management. He is also a millionaire businessman from Fairfield County who served as a Greenwich town selectman years ago and hasn’t sought elective office since he was defeated for the state Senate in 1990.

He’s running against Lieberman — and drawing attention from local Democrats, the “netroots” and members of the national media — primarily because of the Senator’s relatively hawkish position on Iraq.

Sure, Lamont says there are other things about Lieberman’s record that he doesn’t like, including the position the Senator took on the controversy over the brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo last year. But it’s difficult to believe that anyone would be taking a primary challenge to Lieberman seriously were it not for the Iraq conflict and the Senator’s outspoken support of it.

Lieberman’s crime is that he hasn’t always toed the party line. He’s decided for himself what’s right and wrong, even — and here is the most shocking thing — used his own values, judgment and intellect to decide where he stands on issues and how he’ll vote.

Lamont’s criticism has resonated with some Democrats around the state and online. The war is unpopular with Democrats in Connecticut, as it is elsewhere, and many voters are unhappy with Lieberman’s general support of President Bush’s Iraq policy.

It doesn’t seem to matter to those angry Democrats, or to Lamont, that Lieberman is widely respected for his thoughtfulness, integrity, civility and intellect. Or his overall voting record.

After all, let’s not pretend that Lieberman is an heir to former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The Connecticut Democrat votes the liberal line on abortion rights, gun control, the environment and plenty of other issues.

And remember, his job, at least in part, is to represent his state’s interests — a state home to the insurance industry and General Electric.

When Gore picked Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, the public reaction was almost universally positive. How nice, people said, that Gore didn’t select an attack dog or a knee-jerk partisan but someone with impeccable credentials and a reputation for being serious and, yes, even centrist.

It isn’t just that Lieberman is a centrist, however, that makes the primary challenge to him unseemly. Not all centrists deserve to be re-elected any more than all liberals or all conservatives do. Rather, it’s the Connecticut Democrat’s stature and character that, in another day, would make a primary challenge to him by a former Greenwich selectman laughable.

Ironically, most of the House and Senate Democratic challengers that I have interviewed this cycle have decried their opponents’ party-line voting and promise to be an “independent” voice for their state or district.

They know voters like the idea that their elected officials are “independent” and will cast their votes not on the basis of what the president or the party leaders want, but on what’s best for the country and for their districts or states. And, voters believe, partisan loyalty isn’t always the best route for legislators.

Well, somebody better tell those candidates I’m interviewing that if they are “independent,” they may well draw a primary opponent who, like Lamont, thinks that they aren’t “real Democrats” if they don’t toe the party line.

The Lamont pitch, of course, isn’t new, and it isn’t limited to Democrats.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to defeat members of his own party who were running for re-election to the Senate but weren’t sufficiently supportive of his agenda. And over the past two cycles, Republican Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) have had to defend themselves from attacks by conservatives because they have not always followed the party line.

Everyone has his or her opinion about the worthiness of each of these challenges, and there is no right answer about when a Member of Congress has proved to be so “independent” that he or she deserves to be defeated in a primary. But there certainly ought to be a place in our political system for someone like Lieberman. His defeat, unlikely as it may be, would be a sad, sad chapter in American politics..