Joe Lieberman has come a long way since the Democratic Party nominated him as its vice presidential candidate in 2000.
Then, Democrats from Florida to Oregon cheered the Connecticut senator and praised his decency. But today the party’s intense, left-leaning bloggers — such as Matt Stoller of MyDD.com — vilify Lieberman, mostly for his support of the war in Iraq.
In August the anti-Lieberman forces may get their chance for vengeance, as Ned Lamont, a Greenwich, Conn. cable television entrepreneur, tries to knock Lieberman off in the Democratic Senate primary.
Lieberman “sincerely supports the president’s war in Iraq and I sincerely think he’s wrong,” said Lamont in an interview in his Greenwich office Wednesday.
He added, “There was a rush to war. They didn’t ask the tough questions going in. Sen. Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way. I think people should be held accountable for getting us into this mess.”
Lamont does give Lieberman and President Bush credit for seriousness in thinking about the potential danger of Saddam Hussein.
Invading Iraq 'for serious reasons'
Bush “invaded for serious reasons,” Lamont said. “I’m not saying they (Bush and Lieberman) went in (to Iraq) because they were cowboys. I’m saying they didn’t think it through in a serious way. Sometimes all that career in Washington doesn’t translate into common sense.”
Lamont also scolds Lieberman for not filibustering Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.
“He never took a leadership position on Alito…. He voted almost reluctantly against Alito, when the vote really didn’t matter that much,” he said.
So is Lieberman closer to being a Republican than a Democrat? “On a lot of the big issues of the day he really is, yeah,” said Lamont.
Yet if one puts Iraq aside for a moment, most of Lieberman’s record belies Lamont’s portrait of him as a Republican:
- He voted against Clarence Thomas in 1991 and against convicting President Clinton on impeachment charges in 1999.
- He voted “no” on Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
- The nonpartisan magazine Congressional Quarterly recently rated senators on party unity, assessing roll call votes in 2005 in which a majority of Democrats opposed a majority of Republicans. Congressional Quarterly rated Lieberman a 90 out of 100, only a bit less than Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s 92.
- The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign gives Lieberman an 88 out of 100 rating, a better score than 30 other Democratic senators.
- The leading environmental advocacy group the League of Conservation Voters, which mostly backs Democratic candidates, enthusiastically endorsed Lieberman last week and gives him a lifetime rating of 86 out of 100.
Gonzales and Schiavo
But Lamont takes issue with Lieberman’s vote to confirm Alberto Gonzales at attorney general.
And he criticizes Lieberman's statements about the Terri Schiavo case. “Sen. Lieberman said, ‘I understand where Tom DeLay is coming from. And the federal government does have to intervene in cases of life and death.’ On big issues, he’s not with the Democrats.”
A graduate of Harvard and Yale Management School who is 52 but looks ten years younger, Lamont is the scion of a family of blue-blood Republicans, going back to his great-grandfather, all of whom worked for the J.P. Morgan investment firm.
Easygoing and genteel in manner, Lamont doesn’t radiate the crackling energy of the bloggers’ hero, Howard Dean.
But the Lamont-Lieberman clash does have some element of a grudge match between the old Deaniacs and their tormentor, Lieberman.
Questioning Dean's calmness
At a recent Lamont campaign event, an operative of the group Dean founded, Democracy for America, played host to Lamont.
Lieberman’s bid for the 2004 presidential nomination turned into a crusade to stop Dean. In September 2003, Lieberman even seemed to question Dean’s mental stability, saying the voters had to examine whether he had “the ability to calmly make decisions under pressure.”
Democracy for America hasn’t endorsed Lamont but he hopes it will.
Lamont has money, but when asked whether he’d be willing to spend the $60 million in personal wealth that Jon Corzine spent in 2000 to win a Senate seat in New Jersey, Lamont replied with a laugh, “Are you high?”
“There’s no way I can finance this thing myself,” he said. “But when you challenge an incumbent it’s tough to get started, so I’m going to do enough (in self financing) to get this thing off to a credible start, which we’ve done.” He wouldn’t commit himself to a specific dollar amount.
As of Dec. 31, Lieberman’s campaign had more than $4 million in cash on hand. Lamont’s campaign has just begun its fund-raising.
Lamont has scant political experience: a stint as selectman (analogous to city councilman) in Greenwich, and service on the board of finance for Greenwich.
To get into the Aug. 8 primary he needs either 15 percent of the 1,400 delegates to the state convention in May, or 16,000 signatures of registered Democrats on petitions.
Open to censure of Bush
Bush may be on the Aug. 8 ballot in spirit just as much as Lieberman. While Lamont said he doesn’t favor impeachment of Bush, he is “open to” Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure Bush for ordering the National Security Agency surveillance program, which Lamont says is illegal.
In contrast, Lieberman isn’t keen on censuring Bush. He hints that he regards Feingold’s resolution as a worthless gesture.
And Lieberman takes a pragmatic approach to the NSA surveillance, saying, “Since nobody argues we shouldn’t be doing the surveillance and it’s critically important to our national security, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all got in a room together and figured out a way for it to be done according to the law?”
Asked about Lamont’s challenge, Lieberman said, “If his candidacy goes forward, this will be a choice for the people of Connecticut: my record of delivering for them over three terms and whatever he offers for the future.”
In contrast to Lieberman on Iraq, Connecticut’s senior senator, Democrat Chris Dodd voices a keen desire to pull out U.S. troops.
“By the next two weeks if they (the Iraqi factions) don’t come together and form a coalition government, then my view is all bets are off and we ought to get out.”
Support from Dodd
When Lamont’s candidacy is mentioned, Dodd wearily says, “I know,” then adds, “I’m a strong supporter of Joe Lieberman and will be working like heck for him.”
As for the Lamont challenge, “Joe takes it seriously and he should. You never know in this world: an August primary, it always has some potential for others. But I think Joe will prevail in all of this.”
Another Lieberman ally is Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who worked with Lieberman as a member of the group of 14 senators to prevent abolition of the judicial filibuster.
As he came off the Senate floor Tuesday, Salazar called Lieberman “an independent voice who always does what he believes is the right thing. We need more people like Joe Lieberman in the U.S. Senate so we can transcend the partisan poison of Washington D.C. I’m going to do everything I can to help him.”
As for some Democrats’ discontent with their old veep candidate on Iraq, Salazar said, “Sen. Lieberman has a sense of the strategic long-term importance of us succeeding in the Middle East and that’s why he’s taken the position he’s taken. It may not be in agreement with everybody else in the Democratic caucus or with Democrats in general, but I think he has a good foundation from which he is taking his position.”