By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
On a low-rise stage in front of a delicatessen, a blues band is taking a moment between songs to set up a chair and keyboards. Ned Lamont takes a seat and plays a few tentative notes, as if trying to jog his memory. Dozens of gawkers press in, eating corn, drinking beer, smiling.
"We're going to do a boogie-woogie in the key of A," the guitarist and bandleader says to Lamont, off-mike. "What do you think about that?"
"How about G?" he counters.
It's not much to look at or listen to, but right now this is the best show in American politics. Or part of it, anyway. Lamont, a cable-TV executive with as much energy as disposable income, is the man currently petrifying Joe Lieberman, the three-term senator and former vice presidential candidate whose handful of GOP-friendly stands unleashed a lot of rage in the Democratic Party.
And not just regular rage. This is something broader, thanks to the Internet, and something deeper, thanks to Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq. Listen to the Joe-haters, read the pro-Lamont blogs, and you imagine a bunch of torch-bearing villagers who just got a map to the castle.
The anger has transformed Lamont from unknown rich guy into Lieberman's worst nightmare. In the latest Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters for the Aug. 8 Democratic Senate primary, Lamont had pulled slightly ahead of Lieberman -- and that was before Sunday's endorsement of Lamont in the New York Times. Lieberman has said he will run as an independent if he loses next Tuesday, and in a three-way general election he remains the favorite. But nobody has any idea how voters will react if Lieberman ditches the party. Some Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton among them, have already said they'll support whoever wins the primary.
No matter what happens, the Lamont surge looks and sounds like a towel snap at the status quo. This is not merely about the war, say strategists with both camps, but the larger question of what Democrats should do to regain power -- and in the absence of power, how they should behave in opposition. Should they move to the center and accommodate the red-state voters who have sidelined them two elections in a row? Or move to the left and fight, consequences be damned?
Leftward and fight, say a bunch of highly agitated bloggers, who have been pouring their fury into cyberspace and whipping up money and crowds for Lamont. Some Lieberman supporters already predict that the sites will cow moderates in the party and shove Democrats to radical positions that up-for-grabs voters find unpalatable. If this is a trend, they say, it portends badly for Democrats across the country. And if Lieberman prevails as an independent, well, that's one less Democrat in the Senate.
What's certain is that the blogs are flexing their political muscle just as a ballooning number of voters in Connecticut have come to the conclusion that their very blue state now needs a very blue senator. If nothing else, Lamont has excellent timing.
Though not as a musician. Onstage at "Third Thursday," a street fair at this deflated former mill town in northeast Connecticut, the band and Lamont are playing "Flip, Flop and Fly," hardly the most felicitous title. Lamont hasn't performed in public since his high-school cover band in the late 1960s, but his help-me-God grin wins everyone to his side. People clap in unison and start dancing. It's like a scene in a musical.
"Ned Lamont, everybody!" shouts the bandleader at the end of the song. "Can he play?"
Cheers all around.
"Can he legislate?"
More cheers -- though, truthfully, nobody can answer that one. A few months ago, when he first declared his intention to unseat Lieberman, the question Lamont heard most often was "Are you out of your mind?"
Now it's "Who is this guy?"He's Not Lieberman
A very rich man is one answer. The grandson of a partner of J.P. Morgan, Lamont was born with a pile and then made a pile of his own. He's now worth about $200 million, his advisers say. The money he earned comes from a company he founded in 1984 that installs customized cable systems at universities. If a Baptist college didn't like MTV, Lamont could deliver a system that was MTV-free. No advanced-calculus program? Lamont wired a distance-learning channel that filled the void.
"I became the Johnny Appleseed of academic communications," says Lamont, sitting down at a Dunkin' Donuts in Norwalk one recent morning over a gigantic cup of iced coffee. "I think I've been to just about every university in this country."
Lamont is 52 years old, sunny, earnest and surprisingly wry, like a dad in a sitcom. He has a perpetual tan from running a few miles every morning. Like a lot of politicians, he has the alarming habit of referring to himself in the third person, and there's a blank, stunned-for-a-moment pause before he answers most questions.
But he has yet to turn his every answer into a crowd-tested sound bite. So when he says he's for universal health care, and you then ask if he has a universal health care plan, he deadpans, "No, it's just a slogan I throw out." For a moment you think he's serious and then you realize he's saying, "Well, duh."
His ads are funny, too. One on TV parodies the attacks Lieberman has mounted against him: "Meet Ned Lamont," a narrator sneers, over grainy footage of Lamont at breakfast with his family. "He can't make a decent cup of coffee." Cut to Lamont singing "Everybody Wang Chung tonight." "He can't sing karaoke," snickers the narrator. One radio spot described Lieberman as a medication with lots of negative side effects: "Joe Lieberman is safe for lobbyists, big oil, and friendly dinner conversations with Republicans. He may be combined with Fox News."
The ads come from the same Minneapolis firm that handled the guerrilla-style spots that years ago propelled Paul Wellstone to the Senate, and they aren't the only sign that Lamont has hired good help. His campaign manager is a disheveled, fiery-eyed veteran of Connecticut politics named Tom Swan, who has taken a leave of absence from a Naderite public interest group where he's worked for years.
Last year Swan was searching for a candidate to challenge Lieberman and, after canvassing the ranks of political veterans -- all of whom politely declined -- he heard through a friend that Lamont, a former Greenwich selectman for two terms, was interested. For a senatorial hopeful, the guy had a lousy résumé. Selectmen in Greenwich deal with potholes and the like, and Lamont had lost a run for state senate. But Swan and the friend, an attorney, were a little desperate. They held a meeting in December.
"We walked out of it," Swan recalls, "and we liked him. But because he wasn't political," which is to say he lacked experience, "we wondered if our reaction was just about how badly we want to beat Joe."
It's what you might call the Johnny Bravo question. Lamont brings to mind that classic "Brady Bunch" episode in which Greg briefly is transformed into a pop idol with that heroic name because he fits an ornate suit that record execs already had. Polls suggest that Lamont's greatest credential is that he is not Lieberman. But to win in November -- as opposed to giving Lieberman what he has called "the fight of my political life" -- Lamont says he believes that he will have to offer someone to vote for, rather than merely someone to vote against. He must convince the electorate that he isn't just a presentable grown-up who fits a pre-made suit.
Which is what he did with Swan. At a subsequent meeting, Swan hurled a bunch of insults: You're rich, you don't know issues, you don't know how much work is involved. It was a test, and Lamont passed.
"We left that meeting and we thought, 'This isn't what we were looking for, but he's different, he's smart,' " says Swan. "And he reminded us of Jimmy Stewart."
Aiding these paid staffers is a flotilla of volunteers from the blogosphere. Like Beau Anderson, a 25-year-old who attends community college in Connecticut when he isn't extolling Lamont and contradicting Lieberman ads and speeches at his Web site, Spazeboy.net. Anderson is a little bit booster, a little bit heckler, and he has both energy and bandwidth. He pops up at Lieberman events and asks pointed questions of the candidate, or he snaps photos and annotates them on his site. On Sunday he posted a photo of Lieberman on a sidewalk, talking to two reporters and two staff members, according to Anderson.
"Joe's bus tour is drawing crowds totaling zero members of the public," reads the caption, "either because he has no support or because he doesn't publicize the events at all."
Above this was a photo of a recent campaign stop for Lamont before a crowd of voters at a factory in Bristol, all of them clapping.
Some $300,000 has rolled into Lamont's coffers via the Internet, from more than 15,000 contributors. The sum is a pittance compared with the roughly $3 million that Lamont has pumped in from his own bank account. The campaign has spent $3.7 million so far, compared with the $6.6 million spent by the Lieberman camp.
Better than cash, though, the Web sites raised the insurgent campaign's profile. Lamont would expect 25 people at some meet-and-greet, and 125 would show up.
"I think somebody told me early in the campaign, 'Hey Ned, they're talking about you on these sites,' " Lamont says. "I took a look the next day and someone wrote about my speech at some meeting. 'He started off really passionately but he seemed tired by the end, and his suit was really weird.' "
On paper, Lamont is an unlikely maypole for a campaign of progressives, online or otherwise. He was raised on Long Island and attended boarding school at Exeter, then went to Harvard. He edited a newspaper in Vermont after graduation, and later tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the New York Times to start the first cable news channel. (Ted Turner, father of CNN, is one of Lamont's heroes.) He worked for Cablevision before splitting off to form his own company. He's married and has three kids.
What counts as a skeleton in his closet is his membership in the very white Round Hill country club, from which he resigned before the campaign. The only hint of prior mischief is the name of his band in high school, the Flowerpots.
Why the Flowerpots?
"I won't tell you," he says, and he doesn't.
"I can't say anything bad about him, even though he's a Democrat," says Chris Antonik, a Republican who worked with him on the town committee in Greenwich. "Democrats are like weasels, and he's not a weasel."'Bring 'Em Home'
Before his turn at the keyboards, Lamont gives a speech on one of the half-dozen stages set up for "Third Thursday" on Willimantic's Main Street. He follows a band called the Afro-Semitic Experience (T-shirt motto: Oy Yo). Everyone in the crowd is drinking beer. A few supporters recognize Lamont and stop him on his way to the microphone. A guy with a beard tells him to hammer at Lieberman for criticizing Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"By taking the moral high ground, he shifted the center to the right," yells the bearded guy, struggling to be heard over the music. "So today Democratic positions are viewed as extreme. You should say that at every speech."
Lamont nods politely. He's just getting accustomed to the flow of free advice offered by strangers. There's also the weirdness of introducing yourself to people who don't necessarily want to meet you. The campaign, he says, has turned him into an extrovert. As he winds through the crowd, he sticks a hand out to a woman with a Lamont pin. "I'm voting for youuuuu!" she says.
"Everyone is a supporter after a couple beers," he murmurs as he walks toward the stage, looking vaguely terrified. He knows to keep it brief.
"Look, everybody is having fun," he starts, warming to the 30-second version of his pitch. "As I go flat-out around the state, Democrats want us to stand up and say what we're for, what we're going to do. Universal health care is a basic right. We're going to fight for clean energy and we're going to invest our money in our schools."
The crowd is attentive but hardly moved. "And I'll tell you one last thing: America is only as great as our values, and for the last five years we've been compromising our values around the world. And I'll also tell you that if I have the opportunity to be your senator, we're going to start bringing home troops to the heroes' welcome that they deserve."
It's his only sure-fire applause phrase, and he says it at every stop. The heroes' welcome that they deserve.
"Bring 'em home," he half-shouts, over the clapping.
"My name is Ned Lamont," he says, wrapping it up after a few more lines. "And I approved this message."
Lamont knows that he mustn't come across as a one-issue candidate. He has elaborate position papers, available on his Web site, on everything from civil liberties to the situation in the Middle East. (He thinks, for example, that Bush should have been censured over the NSA eavesdropping issue; he thinks the president has squandered so much of the country's prestige in Iraq that it can't play the role of mediator elsewhere in the region.) They are the views of a fiscal conservative, a social liberal and a foreign-policy moderate. He is a few degrees to the right, generally speaking, of the bloggers who have championed him.
But the war in Iraq is the only issue that consistently rouses a crowd. It's the reason anyone knows his name. Without it, Lieberman would be foxtrotting to a fourth term. The war alone, however, does not explain the strength of the revolt against Lieberman, which might have started with some bloggers but has spread far beyond.
"This has been mischaracterized as a one-issue campaign," says George Jepsen, who was majority leader in the Connecticut state senate for six years. Jepsen lays out the case against Lieberman: He embraced the whole "culture of life" concept during the Terry Schiavo controversy, he didn't fight hard enough against the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, he favors school vouchers.
More than anything, Jepsen says, he's just too cozy with Republicans, particularly the president, who infamously gave Lieberman a comradely buss on the cheek at the State of the Union speech last year. A DVD distributed by the Lamont campaign is a highlight reel of news reports about the White House calling Lieberman its favorite Democrat.
"I like Joe, I respect him, I know these are issues of conscience. But his values are totally out of step with those of mainstream Democrats," Jepsen says. "No one is asking him to vote the party line all the time. But why should Democrats vote for someone who on a whole range of issues doesn't share their values? Why have a party if we're expected to fall into line behind someone who falls into line behind someone from South Carolina or Georgia?"
There are a lot of Democrats who believe that for too long, theirs has been the neurotic party -- the one willing to doubt, grapple and worry about whether it is right. You cross a guy like Cheney, he never returns your calls. You cross a guy like Clinton, you get nominated to run as vice president. The anti-Lieberman forces look with envy at the way the Republicans began a lengthy resurrection in the mid-'60s, with a unified message, strong themes and candidates willing to risk an unpopular position. They think what the Democrats need is less bipartisanship and more discipline.
Lieberman's supporters call this madness.
John Droney, who was Democratic state chairman in Connecticut for six years, says Lieberman is exactly the sort of candidate the party should nurture, because of his broad appeal. The bloggers, he says, want to "bring Lieberman's head down to Washington on a pike to warn others who might not toe the Politburo's party line." They want a "prime minister of New England." They are creating a party with no room for centrists. It's the Democrats, in his view, who don't tolerate dissent.
"You can never examine the merits of the positions, you can never vary," he fumes. "That is why we're a bicoastal party and that is why we are a bunch of losers."You Don't Know Joe
Reading the pro-Lamont blogs, you get the impression that Joe Lieberman is afraid of showing his face in Connecticut and that when he does, nobody wants to see it. This isn't exactly true.
On Friday the 64-year-old lawmaker began driving around the state in a huge green bus, emblazoned with the words "Joe's Tomorrow Tour." On Sunday he pulled up to the Irish Festival in Glastonbury and took a stroll.
It was Sahara hot, and hard to hear anything because of a rock band blasting U2 covers. Lieberman inched across a big green field, grinning and back-slapping, slowed by a scrum of reporters and well-wishers. Some wanted to shake hands, others wanted a photo. One guy wore an "I'm sticking with Joe" T-shirt. Most people offered a noncommittal "Good luck."
Sen. Joe Biden showed up a few minutes later. The Delaware Democrat had been scheduled to appear at a Connecticut event a few weeks back but didn't make it -- he said he missed a train -- leading to speculation that Lieberman had gone so toxic that his colleagues wouldn't stump for him. Then last week, Bill Clinton turned up at a Lieberman rally, telling the audience, "He is a good Democrat, he is a good man and he'll do you proud."
"That visit was a turning point," Lieberman said in a quick interview on Sunday. He'd made his way to an outdoor bar, where he was handed a Guinness. "We're going to be all right. I can feel it here. Regular, working, middle-class Democrats, they appreciate my service. They're not going to vote on one issue."
Has the vitriol of the campaign surprised him?
"There's too much hatred, mostly on the other side, toward me," he said. "You can disagree, obviously, but I think hatred is not healthy for our political system or the country."
Lieberman knows he's at war but he is masterly at projecting an aura of inevitability, the unruffled ease that says of course I'm going to win. And one way or another, he very well might. Connecticut has 844,000 registered independents, more than either Republicans or Democrats. (The Republican in the race, Alan Schlesinger, has attracted little attention, unless you count the stories about his gambling troubles.) Watching Lieberman in the only debate in the campaign, televised on MSNBC, was like watching a street gang take on a Cub Scout. Except that Lieberman's somewhat pious tone suggested that the whupping wasn't for fun but for the good of mankind. Don't give my job to this idiot, Lieberman's every word and gesture suggested. Leave it to a professional.
Lamont admits he wasn't ready for the onslaught.
"I watched him with Cheney," he says of the vice presidential debate six years ago. "It was all 'My worthy adversary, my esteemed colleague.' It was right out of the House of Lords. Some people say I should have pushed back a little harder, but my nature is my nature."
Asked if maybe obnoxious just isn't his style, he rolls his eyes a bit. He knows where nice guys finish, and it isn't in the Senate. "Oh, I can see the headline now," he says. " 'Ned Lamont: Too Decent for Politics.' "