Still Their Cup o' Joe?

By Ruth Marcus
Monday, July 10, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- On the morning after what might have been the most important debate of his political career, Joe Lieberman was at the Athenian Diner, trying to woo voters such as Ollie Lawrence, who once could have been taken for granted.

Lawrence, a 54-year-old human resources consultant, has voted repeatedly for the Democratic senator. He's given money to Lieberman -- "hundreds, thousands over the years," he says. When Lieberman takes a seat in Lawrence's booth and asks what message he'd like to send to Washington, the two men talk health care -- the high cost of insurance for independent businessmen such as Lawrence, his daughter's liver transplant, health-care legislation Lieberman has sponsored.

But after Lieberman moves on, it turns out Lawrence has another issue on his mind -- one that's left him wavering about whether to back Lieberman or his opponent, wealthy cable executive Ned Lamont, in the Aug. 8 primary. "Iraq may not be enough to push me away from him, but right now I'm undecided," Lawrence says.

Lieberman's political fate -- uncertain enough that he's taken the extraordinary step of collecting signatures to run as an independent in case he loses to Lamont -- turns on the Ollie Lawrences of his state. Are they so upset about the war, and so angered by Lieberman's unflagging support for it, that they would oust a three-term senator and former vice presidential nominee in favor of an antiwar candidate whose only experience in elective office was as a Greenwich selectman during the 1980s?

In a state whose voters are infuriated with President Bush, the man Lamont derides as "Bush's lapdog" offers a tempting surrogate target. "It's larger than the war in the sense that George Bush is intensely disliked in Connecticut," says New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has endorsed Lieberman. When he sees Lamont supporters, DeStefano notes, they're apt to be wearing a button that displays "The Kiss" -- an image of Bush embracing Lieberman after the 2005 State of the Union address.

Nearly every Democratic voter I spoke with here disagreed with Lieberman about the war -- but they were split about whether they would vote for him anyway. Most said they planned to vote in the primary -- which may be a good sign for Lieberman. "If it's a low turnout, then my dear friend has got a serious problem," says Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) "Between 15 and 25 percent, I think he does fine." One measure of voter interest: Last Thursday's debate at WVIT-TV in West Hartford tied for the most watched show that day.

The 2000 vice presidential debate between Lieberman and Dick Cheney was a genteel meeting of sober-minded men. This was politics as roller derby. The 64-year-old Lieberman came out swinging -- at times perhaps a bit too hard. He took some less-than-convincing shots: for example, harping on Lamont's 80 percent voting record with Republican selectmen -- as if Greenwich government is composed of Tom DeLay clones.

Lamont, 52, performed reasonably well -- especially for someone whose post-high school debating experience, he told reporters afterward, was limited to roles such as playing Bill Clinton before an audience at Greenwich High School.

Overall, though, I think, the side-by-side encounter ended up working to Lieberman's advantage, underscoring his experience and clout. While Lamont decried earmarks, Lieberman was able to boast about "18 years of experience and a record of results for Connecticut," ticking off the benefits his seniority has helped bring to the state -- $75 million for the Electric Boat shipyard, $50 million to help eliminate traffic congestion on Interstate 95.

Lieberman casts the race as a test not just for himself but for the Democratic Party -- in particular for its empowered liberal blogosphere, which has been venomous in its opposition to Lieberman and is eager to display his scalp as the first solid electoral evidence of its new muscle.

"It's not only about whether I'll get to serve anymore. It's about the future of the Democratic Party and about how our politics is conducted," he says over a plate of codfish and potatoes at a Portuguese restaurant in Danbury, where he'd just finished meeting with a group of Hispanic business leaders. "Are the extremes going to dominate? Do you have to be 100 percent in agreement with an elected official or it's not good enough?"

This is the disturbing aspect of the Lieberman-Lamont race. Perhaps Lieberman is wrong on the war. Perhaps he's been too eager in recent years to demonstrate his independence from the party.

But the Ahab-like zeal with which critics are pursuing him is far in excess of whatever supposed crimes he has committed. Lieberman is an experienced, serious legislator. His bipartisan instincts should be commended, not pilloried. His refusal to back away from his convictions on Iraq deserves admiration even from those who disagree.

Lamont is an engaging, smart man who seems to have been swept to the left by his supporters. He contributed to Lieberman as recently as February 2005; his presidential choices have been centrists such as senators Bob Graham and Bill Bradley. Now, he talks about how Lieberman's "never met a trade agreement that he didn't applaud."

While Lamont and the bloggers who back him devote their energy to defeating Lieberman, Connecticut has three competitive House races where Democratic challengers have a chance of beating Republican incumbents and helping take back the House. Wouldn't those be a more productive way for Democrats unhappy about Bush and the war to channel their anger?

marcusr@washpost.com


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