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Why are bloggers targeting Lieberman?

As Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., races to fend off anti-war challenger Ned Lamont, is the left's furious assault on the centrist Lieberman an ideological witch-hunt to cleanse the party of heretics or a fight over the future of the Democratic Party.
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Is Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., just the target of liberal bloggers for his ideology or a harbinger of things to come in the Democratic Party?Chris Livingston / Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

As U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., races to fend off a stiff primary from anti-war challenger Ned Lamont, Washington's chattering class has been chattering. A lot. And a common refrain has been how the left's furious assault on the centrist Lieberman is an ideological witch-hunt, an attempt to cleanse the party of heretics, and -- just maybe -- a fight over the future of the Democratic Party.

"This isn't a fight between left and right," New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote earlier this month. "It's a fight about how politics should be conducted... What's happening to Lieberman can only be described as a liberal inquisition."

Added Morton Kondracke in Roll Call: "This is no exaggeration: The soul of the Democratic Party -- and possibly the future of civility in American politics -- is on the line in the Aug. 8 Senate primary in Connecticut."

It's not hard to see why some have arrived at this conclusion. Just look at some of the recent postings on the prominent liberal weblog Daily Kos, where posters have blasted Lieberman for his unflinching support for the Iraq war and his embrace of President Bush (both figuratively and literally). One poster on the site wrote: "Joe W. Lieberbush is a right-wing Rethug masquerading as a moderate Democrat." Said another: "Lieberman is a poor excuse for a man, and even a poorer excuse for a Democratic Senator. He lost his heart a long time ago when he sold out to Bush and the neocons."

‘We need this seat’
Those who see the Lieberman-Lamont contest as a liberal inquisition or a battle for the soul of the Democratic party tend to forget one thing: that outside of this particular race, the left-wing blogosphere this election cycle has often been more concerned about winning races against Republicans than battling over ideology -- which perhaps shouldn't be surprising given that Democrats don't control either chamber of Congress and haven't won the last two presidential elections.

"There's more pragmatism among the bloggers than they get credit for," says Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, a nonpartisan political newsletter.

Same boat, different class
Case in point: the much-hyped Senate race in Pennsylvania, where liberals have embraced Democrat Bob Casey, despite his conservative views on abortion and gun rights. The reason why is because Casey has a very good chance of defeating an archenemy to liberals, conservative Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.  "Like it or not, Casey has the clearest path to victory of any Dem Senate challenger this cycle," wrote liberal blogger and founder of the Daily Kos blog, Markos Moulitsas, after Casey came out in support of then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. "We need this seat."

Or take the Virginia's Senate race, where Moulitsas and other liberal bloggers supported the Democratic primary campaign of former Reagan Navy Secretary James Webb. While Webb has vocally opposed the Iraq war (and used his military credentials to bolster his argument), he's also a former Republican who backed President Bush and U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., in 2000 -- hardly your typical Democrat. But bloggers, and also the Democratic establishment, saw Webb as the best chance to defeat the incumbent Allen in the fall.

And then there is Nebraska's Ben Nelson, widely regarded as the Senate's most conservative Democrat, whose re-election campaign is running a television ad that features President Bush praising him. The left hasn't laid a finger on the Nebraska Democrat.

Ideology vs. Pragmatism
So if the liberal bloggers are comfortable standing behind those candidates, why are they going after Lieberman? One reason, political observers say, is because of his steadfast support for the Iraq war. Another is that critics believe Lieberman -- from condemning Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair, to equivocating on Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security -- has undermined his party. "Every time the Democrats speak together and stand boldly, there's Joe Lieberman undermining them and playing the other side," says Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.

But a third reason why Lieberman -- and not Casey or Webb or Nelson -- might be facing the ire of liberals is perhaps the most pragmatic reason of all: because Republicans have little chance of winning this Connecticut Senate seat, regardless of what happens in the primary. The Hotline's Todd suggests that liberals look at this deep-blue state and wonder why they can't have a senator who better reflects their views than the moderate Lieberman.

Not everyone, however, views the bloggers on the left as political pragmatists. Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who supports Lieberman in the primary, says that the Casey, Webb, and Nelson examples are exceptions -- and that the liberals are far more concerned with ideology than electability. Wittmann believes that these bloggers want to cleanse the party of any trace of centrism and move the party leftward. "The ramifications of this race extend far beyond the borders of Connecticut," he says.

2008 and beyond
But Moulitsas of the Daily Kos disagrees. "Our crashing of Washington's gates wasn't about ideology, it was about pragmatism," he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in May. He noted, in fact, that he and other liberal bloggers supported Howard Dean in the last presidential election "despite his moderate, pro-gun, pro-balanced budget record."

That was 2004. How will they react to the Democratic candidates who are eyeing the White House in 2008? Political analysts interviewed for this article speculate that they will likely support the most electable liberal candidate they can find. That could mean someone like former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner or former vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

What about Hillary Clinton? Many liberal bloggers have made it clear she's not their first choice. In his Washington Post piece Moulitsas said Clinton "epitomizes the 'insider' label of the early crowd of 2008 Democratic contenders. She's part of the Clinton machine that decimated the national Democratic Party. And she remains surrounded by many of the old consultants who counsel meekness and caution." And their assault on Lieberman -- who, like Clinton, voted for the Iraq war -- hasn't gone unnoticed by Clinton's supporters, who believe she could be the next target.

But Todd says that Clinton's recent hiring of Peter Daou, who managed blog outreach for John Kerry's presidential campaign, could signal that she is interested in reaching out to the blogosphere. Clinton, he said, might not be their first choice, but she "doesn't want to become their last choice. If she became a bane, that would be a problem [for her]."

Which is something the embattled Lieberman knows plenty about.

NBC political reporter Mark Murray contributed to this story.