Lip service to Lieberman is his liability

The Democratic senator is finding his re-election bid in danger, partly because of that smooch from the president.

Published July 16, 2006

STAMFORD, Conn. — Striding onto the U.S. House floor for his 2005 State of the Union speech, George W. Bush halted, reached his left hand behind Sen. Joe Lieberman’s head, and plunged his kisser to the Connecticut Democrat’s cheek before an international TV audience.

Of all the senators in all the blue states, W puckers up for Joe Lieberman.

Now the onetime Democratic hero of South Florida’s condo complexes, the guy who came just a few hanging Florida chad shy of the vice presidency, is fighting for his political life. The Kiss looms large.

Among the growing number of Nutmeg State Democrats eager to oust the three-term incumbent, activists sport buttons picturing the Bush smooch. Ardent and angry liberal bloggers run video clips of The Kiss online to help pump money to Lieberman’s Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont. A July Fourth parade float in Willimantic featured giant papier-mache versions of Lieberman and Bush preparing to mash faces, while the real Lieberman drew boos at the parade.

Polls show Lieberman in serious danger of losing the Aug. 8 primary, and he’s planning for that prospect. Should his home state Democrats reject him as their Senate nominee, he says he will run for re-election in the general election as an independent.

National Democrats are tied up in knots over Lieberman’s predicament.

Which is worse for a party struggling for its message and identity: Antagonizing the influential blogosphere and Democratic left wing by sticking by a prowar senator who has been a stalwart on most Democratic issues? Or potentially signaling to midterm election swing voters nationally that Democrats have no tolerance for a national security hawk who might entice a muzzle from George W. Bush?

“I didn’t kiss him back,” the 64-year-old Lieberman assured Democrats at one recent gathering.


Inside the Indian restaurant Meera in Stamford last week, Roger Shukla interrupted Ned Lamont’s mingling with a tug on the candidate’s tan suit sleeve.

“I was an independent voter, but yesterday afternoon I became a Democrat,” Shukla said. “Now I can vote for you in the primary!”

“Just don’t go anywhere,” Lamont said, laughing. “August is a great time to be in Connecticut.”

Angry liberal candidates are a dime a dozen in America today, but Lamont doesn’t fit the easy stereotype. An amiable prep school product from Greenwich and the great-grandson of J.P. Morgan’s partner, he is a telegenic cable entrepreneur in a solidly blue state.

He doesn’t shun the liberal label, but says his campaign is about far more than the war in Iraq. He says Lieberman has lost touch with most of his home state constituents and become part of a permanent political class in Washington.

“I hope I’m not ruining Joe Lieberman’s summer, but it’s important that he comes back and goes to the diners (to campaign) and goes to the parades,” Lamont said to chuckles in Stamford last week. “We’re making wrong choices way outside the historical mainstream of where this country has been for many years.”

Few people had heard of Lamont, a former Greenwich town selectman, when he entered the race six months ago.

To this day supporters sometimes call him Ted Lamont. But partly because of his wealth and intention to spend up to $2.5-million of his own money, and partly because of pent-up frustration with Lieberman in his home state, he has made it one of the most dramatic political stories of the year.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Lieberman’s lead over Lamont among registered Democrats dropped from 46 points in May to 15 points in early June.

“I’m not really surprised, because the overwhelming issue on America’s mind is the Iraq war and Joe has staked out a particularly clear position on that issue,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, another centrist and national security hawk who was one of the few Democrats to vote against authorizing force in Iraq.

Lieberman not only strongly supported attacking Iraq, but has continued to aggressively tout the progress being made in Iraq. Last December he chastised Democrats criticizing the administration, saying “in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”

In an election cycle where the climate is treacherous for Republicans, many Republicans look at the saga playing out in Connecticut and are reassured they may not have so much to worry about from the Democrats.

“They have no identity now. It’s mostly a party of anger and ambition, and in many ways anger in search of an argument,” said Republican strategist Stu Stevens. “We saw this in our party to some extent with Clinton. We were so angry it just left us sputtering and never really understanding Clinton’s appeal.”

If Lieberman winds up running as an independent and most national party leaders stand behind Lamont as their party’s nominee, the GOP is expected to cast the race to swing voters across the country as proof that Democrats won’t abide by a centrist in their ranks.

“That’s nonsense,” Lamont said. “You don’t have to be a liberal to be against this war.”

Outside Connecticut, the Lamont-Lieberman race is often cast as a simple referendum on Iraq.

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, an opponent of the Iraq war from the start and a national finance co-chair for Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign, said he wished party activists would see the bigger picture.

“I’ve been on the phone with him until 2 o’clock in the morning, sometimes 4 o’clock, while he fought to stop drilling off of Florida and in ANWAR,” said Berger, who is among the Floridians who through April had contributed nearly $350,000 to Lieberman’s re-election. “But the war is the pivotal issue of our time, and Joe has become the poster boy for the group that wants our party to start standing up on that issue.”

Talk to Connecticut Democrats, though, and they consistently say Lieberman’s war stance was only the final straw.

“The Lieberman people want to spin this as simply an antiwar effort, and it’s anything but. If it was just about the war, the Lamont candidacy wouldn’t have any legs,” said former Connecticut Democratic chairman George Jepsen, a Lamont supporter. “The war issue sits on a foundation of a lot of powerful discontent by a lot of Connecticut voters and mainstream Democrats.”

Others complain that while Lieberman has basked in positive press as a moderate bridging the partisan divide, he often has appeared to be far more concerned about his own interests than with those of his party.

He publicly condemned President Clinton over Monica Lewinsky, he was downright cordial during his 2000 vice presidential debate against Dick Cheney, and that same year he refused to resign his Senate seat while running for vice president. Had Al Gore won, Connecticut’s Republican governor would have appointed Lieberman’s successor.

“It’s one thing to be a conservative Democrat; it’s another thing to enhance that image by trashing parts of the party to which you purport to belong,” political analyst Chuck Todd wrote in a recent National Journal column, predicting that Lieberman has a strong shot at losing should he wind up in a three-way race as an independent.

The attention on Lieberman’s troubles should help mobilize Lieberman supporters for the primary next month, including some coming from out of state to help. Naturally he is downplaying Bush’s affection.

“I know George Bush. I’ve worked against George Bush. I’ve even run against George Bush,” he said in a combative debate with Lamont this month. “But, Ned, I’m not George Bush. So why don’t you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me and my record.’’

Oh, and that presidential kiss? Lieberman told Time magazine recently he wasn’t sure that Bush did anything but embrace him and thank him for his patriotism.

The president also is backing off. Pressed on Larry King about Lieberman, he demurred: “You’re trying to get me to give him a political kiss, which may be his death.”