By DAN K. THOMASSON
I first met Joe Lieberman when, as a freshmen senator, he spoke to a national gathering of Scripps Howard editors here. He was instantly likable, a voice of reason and civility in the increasing babble and tension emanating from Capitol Hill. It seemed to me that here was a guy who actually believed that Democrats weren’t always right and Republicans weren’t always wrong and vise versa, that bipartisanship isn’t a dirty word and that, while there should be adherence to party guidelines, there is plenty of room for compromise.
He seems to still believe in that approach, despite the fact it has leapt up and bit him, costing him his party’s nomination for a fourth term and leaving him to test his theories further as an independent candidate. It is a tough road, full of potential expense and heartache for him and probably his old party.
It hasn’t been easy for Lieberman since he came to prominence as Al Gore’s 2000 running mate, the first Jew to be nominated to a national ticket. In fact, rather than accepting the nomination, he would have done better in bankruptcy court, to paraphrase the late, great journalist Peter Lisagor.
In the intervening years he has seen his own presidential aspirations short-circuited; his stock with his party’s liberal base decline because of his support for the Iraq war; his political fences at home crumble from neglect, and his insistence on bipartisanship and occasional support for presidential policies undercut his standing with the party leaders who necessarily have now abandoned him.
Connecticut’s Democrats and the national party are big-time losers here. They’ve traded a first-rate political mind with experience and influence for a blueblood multimillionaire who has neither. Even if he wins in November, Ned Lamont would bring very little to the Senate, where there are already plenty of wealthy backbenchers with little stature. His only platform was his opposition to the war, which in this case was enough.
There are times in American politics when voters decide change for change’s sake is the order of the day, and there is little those elected officials who get caught in this wave of discontent can do about it, no matter how distinguished their records. It is just the wrong time to be an incumbent.
It may be too early to determine if this is one of those instances, but certainly the defeat of Lieberman and two other incumbents in their primaries have signaled that possibility. Most shocking of these, of course, is Lieberman’s loss. Pundits saw the vote as a referendum on Iraq. That’s an analysis that may be somewhat premature, considering the narrowness of the vote and the fact that the Connecticut’s traditional liberals are hardly representative of the nation.
There were also mitigating circumstances in the defeats of Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan in their respective primaries. McKinney, who has had a record of controversy, gained national notoriety when she got into a fight with a Capitol police officer earlier this year. Schwarz is a moderate in a conservative district in his first term, when House members are generally considered most vulnerable.
There is no denying that the polls show growing voter unhappiness not only with the White House, where President Bush’s approval ratings continue to be at an all-time low, but also with the GOP-controlled Congress. Several Democrats with presidential aspirations had been reluctant to speak out on Iraq for fear of being labeled unsupportive of U.S. troops, but are now doing so. One of these, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, charged that the Iraq policy had failed and called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
As for Lieberman, the 52 percent to 48 percent losing margin seems certain to make his unaffiliated run for re-election dicey for Democrats. He told supporters that he is "disappointed, "not just because I lost but because the old politics of partisan polarization won. … For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let the result stand."
A poll taken earlier has shown him winning in a three-way race. But this seems offset by the fact he can expect little, if any, backing, from party leaders, including his Connecticut colleague, Sen. Chris Dodd. At a time when the roar of partisanship is almost deafening and the anger on the Hill is palpable, it may be a long shot for a candidate who truly believes in the art of accommodation.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)