Like Josh Marshall and others, I have strong and deeply conflicted feelings about Ned Lamont’s challenge to Senator Lieberman. I have a lot of residual respect for Lieberman, which goes way back. And I mean way back: As I often note, Lieberman is probably the first politician I was aware of when I was a little kid. When I was about seven years old, my view of politics could probably be summed up as Nixon=bad/Lieberman=good.
This was when he was a State Senator representing New Haven, following the last great anti-war rebellion in the Connecticut Democratic Party. In 1970, incumbent U.S. Senator Thomas Dodd - hawkish, pro-war, and ill - withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination when it was apparent that he would lose to anti-war candidate Joe Duffey, but then later reentered the race as an independent. Meanwhile, Lieberman, who with Duffey had founded the anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats, was riding the same wave to unseat the State Senate Majority Leader in a primary. Helping to run both the Lieberman and Duffey campaigns were a lovey-dovey pair of idealistic Yale law students named Rodham and Clinton.
Later I didn’t pay much attention to Lieberman as he ran and lost campaigns for Lieutenant Governor and Congress. He seemed to be one of those ‘70s reformers who just couldn’t stop running. By the time he was elected Attorney General of Connecticut (where he pioneered the role of activist A.G. that Elliott Spitzer has perfected) I had moved out of the state. But later, when I worked in the Senate, I often worked closely with Lieberman and his staff - he and Bill Bradley often shared idiosyncratic positions, such as support for school vouchers, as well as less idiosyncratic but highly complicated interests, such as improving child support enforcement. In most such dealings between Senate offices, staff as well as the Senators, even when they agree, are always subtly jockeying for credit, for a visible leadership role on the issue, or for a place in front of the camera. Even though Lieberman had written a book about child support enforcement, based on his efforts to fix the system in Connecticut, and knew more about it than any other Senator (and surely more than I did), he contentedly played a supporting role. And it always seemed apparent from everyone who worked with him that he was simply a better human being (kinder, more respectful) to those around him than 99% of politicians.
Lieberman’s positions on various issues never really bothered me. I don’t need elected officials to exactly match my issue positions, which often change anyway. And in some cases, I shared his positions. I found his sanctimonious tone grating, his obsession with popular media distasteful and misdirected (as in, you might have more credibility on this if you didn’t suck up to “the I-Man” - Don Imus -- two mornings a week), but they would never be enough to make me think that if I lived in Connecticut, I wouldn’t vote for him. While my family and family friends developed a deep distaste for Lieberman, I would simply repeat the reminder, drilled into my head by own friends in the Lieberman camp, that his voting record really isn’t that different from Senator Dodd’s. And it isn’t.
Josh Marshall suggested recently that his greatest misgiving about Lieberman was his weirdly persistent refusal last year to get off the fence on Social Security privatization, as if he was waiting for some bipartisan deal that he could courageously join. “Perhaps he’s just out of step with the parliamentary turn of recent American politics,” Josh suggests. By which he means that, despite the Medicare drug bill, the energy bill, and the abundance of evidence to the contrary, Lieberman still thinks that he can deal in good faith with the Republicans. True, Lieberman doesn’t seem to really understand the current power structure, but he’s hardly alone in that. It took a couple of whippings before Ted Kennedy understood it. I’ve argued that everyone had better reckon with the fact that the era of bipartisan coalitions is dead, but I think there are downsides to that change and I don’t blame Lieberman for trying. Nor, in the end, did he cause any harm by his misreading of the Social Security game.
Nor is it fatal to me in itself that Lieberman supported the war and opposes withdrawal on a timetable. I voted twice in 2004 for Senators who had voted for the war, and I have no cosmic certainty at this point about what the right answer is. I’d vote for withdrawal on a timetable, but not without doubts. Maybe Biden’s right, maybe Levin and Reed, maybe Murtha. Because the risks are so uncertain, this is the hardest question to answer, and for myself, I find I can’t categorically dismiss anyone’s answer or insist that every Democrat toe one line.
So I ought to be a Lieberman “dead-ender.” I’ve respected him for 30-some years, I don’t mind his idiosyncratic positions, I don’t demand party loyalty, and I don’t insist on any particular position on how to end the war. But I’m not. Because something happened to Lieberman, and it’s more than his position on the war. It is not, as John Dickerson wrote on Slate this week that he “symbolizes” all the other Democrats who voted for the war or won’t take a firm stand. Above all else, it’s simply his self-righteous anger, his hostility to those who differ. He alone among Democrats seem to think that opponents of the war are not just mistaken, but will cause us to lose. (Just as he alone can continue to describe the choice in the war as “winning” or “losing,” as if “winning” were somehow still possible, as opposed to salvaging a bad situation.) He alone would say something like, “”We criticize the commander-in-chief at our own peril.” And he alone would suggest, as he did to David Broder, that Democrats who criticized Bush on the war were acting from "partisan interest" while he was thinking of "the national interest." He alone seems more focused on what he sees as the errors of the war’s opponents than those who launched the war. As Michael Tomasky said of Peter Beinart’s New Republic position on the Iraq War, it was not so much that they supported the war as that they “opposed the opposers.”
It seems to me that Lieberman is following the path, quite literally, of the neo-conservatives - not the Rumsfeldian nationalists who incorrectly wear that label now, but the original neo-cons of the 1960s, driven to the right above all by their irritation at the left, often based on domestic politics. (Hence the title of this post, an allusion to one of the most famous original documents of the neocons, Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 essay, “My Negro Problem - And Ours”.)
Is that enough of a reason to oppose Lieberman? Sure, because it’s a huge error on one of the most fundamental questions of our time. It’s an error not of policy or of political loyalty, but of attitude. And it is not an error that I see others making. I heard Ed Kilgore today, on a bloggingHeads sequence, argue that if “the bloggers” come for Lieberman today, tomorrow they’ll go after Steny Hoyer or Hillary Clinton. I can’t speak for everyone, but while I have disagreements with Clinton and probably Hoyer, I’ve never heard them say things as deeply offensive to my sense of what democracy and patriotism requires as I’ve heard from Lieberman recently.
Nor do I accept the argument that if Lamont wins, it represents a “purge” or shows that “there’s no place in the Democratic Party” for Lieberman. I value competitive elections. Lieberman’s not guaranteed a fourth term in the Senate. Ned Lamont’s reasonably well qualified, certainly as qualified as, say, Paul Wellstone was. If Connecticut Democrats want a Senator who had the right position on the war, or at least doesn’t treat those who did have the right position with contempt, they are entitled to it.
Finally, as to the possibility that Lieberman would run as an independent - well, in the David Broder column mentioned above, he noted Lieberman’s admiration for the great Connecticut Democratic boss and DNC chair, John Bailey, and Bailey’s skill at engineering nominations and avoiding primaries. He should not forget what Bailey said of Senator Thomas Dodd’s decision to run as an independent in 1970: "...any action like this can’t help but hurt the party.”
(I’m grateful to the author who writes as “Genghis Conn” on the Connecticut Local Politics blog for a well-sourced account of the 1970 campaigns.)