THE LONGER Sen. Joe Lieberman’s reelection campaign in Connecticut goes on, the harder it gets to detect any rationale for his candidacy that’s persuasive to anybody who isn’t Joe Lieberman.
When he announced earlier this summer that he would run as an independent if he lost the Democratic primary, his stated reason was that turnout was likely to be tiny. Instead, turnout was heavy. But Lieberman says he’s running as an independent anyway.
Lieberman says his antiwar opponent, Ned Lamont, relied on the support of Al Sharpton, demagogic bloggers and other unsavory characters. This is perfectly true. But Lieberman is just as happy to accept the good wishes of odious figures such as Sean Hannity and Karl Rove.
The night of his defeat, Lieberman tried to cast the result of the primary as illegitimate because “the old politics of partisan polarization won today. For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let this result stand.” But what does it mean that the politics of partisan polarization won? It means that Lieberman lost. It’s a perfectly circular definition.
Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that Lieberman’s loss is his own fault. He was far too slow to recognize the seriousness of Lamont’s challenge. He ended the campaign with $2 million unspent. And his decision to now run as an independent was a disaster, confirming the central accusation against him, which was that he cared more about his own standing than his party. If he had just declared in advance that he would abide by the result of the primary, he probably would have won, and he’d have Lamont campaigning for him today.
Lieberman’s decision to run as an independent after contesting the primary is not illegal in Connecticut (unlike other states, which have “sore loser” laws prohibiting such a gambit), but it is poor form. The primary is an essential element of the two-party system, and the process is subverted when losing candidates feel free to circumvent it. (Which is the problem with Ralph Nader-esque, suicidal third-party runs.) If the primary voters veer off too far toward the extreme, there’s a built-in sanction: They will lose the general election and moderate their ways next time.
The best rationale for Lieberman’s candidacy all along was that he was an important spokesman for Democrats who take seriously the threat of Islamist radicalism. Unfortunately, Lieberman was never an ideal messenger for that ideology. He has supported capital-gains tax cuts, ultra-loose financial regulations and the crucial vote on the grotesque bankruptcy bill. He has an almost pathological need to be liked by the far right.
Above all, he has maddeningly failed to acknowledge just how badly the Iraq war has turned out, which is different from insisting that we have to fix the mess we created. After all, many hawkish Democrats such as Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware supported the war and don’t want to retreat but fully acknowledge President Bush’s catastrophic management of the occupation.
Lieberman’s persona has therefore tainted his admirable foreign policy instincts with his un-admirable domestic and political ones. In a perverse way, conservative Republicans and liberal doves have a shared interest in making Lieberman the symbol of the Democratic hawk. Dovish lefties want everybody to think that if you’re a hawk, you must be cozy with Bush. Conservatives want everybody to think that if you’re not cozy with Bush, you can’t be a hawk.
Still, the Lieberman rationale held together, just barely, as long as he was fighting the good fight within the Democratic Party. But now that he’s running as an independent, the last pillars of that rationale have crumbled.
What’s the point of running to uphold Democratic hawkishness when you’re running against the Democratic Party and its chosen nominee? Lieberman is fighting on terrain that, from the perspective of the liberal hawks, could not be less advantageous.
It has stopped being a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and become a battle for Lieberman to keep his prestigious job. If the ideas that he professes to value above all else are really his highest priority, he should drop out of the race.