By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
FARMINGTON, Conn., Aug. 7 -- Exactly six years ago Tuesday, on a sweltering day in Nashville, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) was introduced to the nation as Al Gore's vice presidential running mate. Lieberman called his selection "a miracle" and described himself as part of an "American Dream Team."
From the pinnacle of that 2000 campaign, Lieberman has seen his support crumble with astonishing swiftness. Six years after making history as the first Jew chosen for a national ticket and being hailed as one of the most respected politicians in the country, Lieberman is in the last hours of a battle to avoid a humiliating rejection by his own party at home. A poll Monday showed Lieberman behind but gaining ground in a tight race.
Lieberman's plight, according to Democrats here and in Washington, is two stories in one. The first is a metaphor for politics in the era of President Bush and how an unpopular war in Iraq has divided the electorate, inflamed the public debate and intensified an already partisan political climate.
For more than a decade, Lieberman has stood as one of the most prominent representatives of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democratic Party, a leading advocate of a robust and muscular foreign policy and a proponent of values-based politics in a party often seen as struggling to find its voice in the culture wars. His instincts for collegiality and bipartisanship, once regarded as virtues, are now seen as virtual disqualifications by his critics here and nationally.
"I haven't changed," Lieberman explained in an interview aboard his campaign bus Friday. "Events around me have changed."
The other part of the story here is a familiar tale in politics, that of an incumbent who, as he gained national prominence, gradually lost touch with the voters and politicians who first sent him to Washington. Long before Iraq, there were signs of erosion in Lieberman's standing in Connecticut. "There was a personal sense among Connecticut Democrats that his national agenda is what matters to him and not Connecticut," said George Jepsen, a former state party chairman and supporter of antiwar challenger Ned Lamont.
A Lamont victory Tuesday would be the most significant primary defeat for an incumbent Democratic senator since Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War, fell to then-Gov. Dale Bumpers in 1974. Lamont's challenge, coming from a candidate with minimal political experience or visibility, has far more of a David-and-Goliath quality than the Fulbright-Bumpers contest, which did not turn on great issues of the day.
The Connecticut race has drawn national attention because of what it may say about the president and the politics of Iraq heading into a critical midterm election and the 2008 presidential campaign, as well as what it may reveal about a Democratic Party that often has been at war with itself over foreign policy since the Vietnam era.
Long one of the Democrats' most prominent hawks, Lieberman has found himself at odds with the rank and file in his party, not only for supporting the war so vigorously but also for refusing to engage in the rhetorical combat of a politically charged moment in history. He has warned fellow Democrats that hyper-partisanship on foreign policy issues damages American interests. In recent days, he has noted that he has given the same warnings to Republicans and emphasized that he has not been a blind supporter of Bush on Iraq.
Lieberman's friends and allies have watched this drama play out with differing emotions -- both a sense of sadness that someone they have long respected has been caught in the vise of the Iraq war and a sense of alarm that he either ignored the warning signs or was somehow incapable or unwilling to adjust to them.
"The stance that, for a senator, politics ought to stop at the water's edge makes sense if and only if the president isn't playing politics with foreign policy," said William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution, who has often sided with Lieberman on intraparty battles but disagrees with him on the war.
"But this president and this administration manifestly have played politics with foreign policy, and their chief political adviser has been totally frank about that," he added. "I think it would have been permissible and even advisable for Joe Lieberman to conclude at some point that a bipartisan foreign policy has got to be a two-way street. He really didn't."
Last November, returning from a trip to Iraq, Lieberman wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that many of his opponents regarded as an effort to prop up a failing policy and to discourage those in his party from pushing for an exit strategy.
"I wasn't thinking as a Democrat," Lieberman said in the interview. "I was thinking as an American senator who went to Iraq and saw some progress and wanted to report it to the American people because I feel so deeply that the way this ends will have serious consequences for the future of this country."
Lieberman argues that in an age of intense partisanship, he is paying an unfair price for what he regards as measured criticism of the president's policy. But his reluctance to, as he put it, think like a Democrat when many Democrats are demanding that their leaders stand up to the president has put him at risk against Lamont.
But there are other reasons, and they are in evidence wherever Lieberman campaigns across Connecticut. They have as much to do with what he has failed to do at home as with what he has done in Washington with regard to Iraq.
Nancy Riella was having lunch in the Plum Tomato restaurant in Colchester last week when Lieberman arrived on his bus. Riella opposes the war and supports Lamont, but her complaints about Lieberman extend beyond national issues. She has regularly sent concerns to Lieberman, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.).
"I've gotten responses from Dodd and Simmons and never from Lieberman," she said. "He's untouchable, out of reach."
A Democratic town committeeman in East Hartford complained Friday that Lieberman failed to come and hear concerns about his positions on the war. A state legislator complained Saturday that Lieberman does not know most members of the legislature. Lieberman's staff has heard numerous stories over the course of the campaign of Lieberman's failure to stroke the right person at the right time.
These perceived personal slights have piled up aside criticisms that Lieberman has been inattentive to the liberal politics of his state. From his first election to the Senate in 1988, when he pieced together a left-right coalition to defeat the incumbent Republican, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Lieberman has charted a course often independent of his party.
Some Democrats still resent his 1998 Senate floor speech criticizing President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Others dislike his support for legislation allowing federal courts to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. Others were offended when Lieberman, who is a strong supporter of women's rights and has the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Catholic hospitals should not be required to offer emergency contraception to rape victims because they can easily go to another hospital.
Lieberman still has many defenders -- African American ministers, union officials, ordinary Democrats -- who say he has fought for them and their issues. "There are some people who forget about that," said Montville Mayor Joseph W. Jaskiewicz. "I can't."
Lieberman is hoping that on Tuesday, these loyalists will come out in force and some of the Democrats prepared to send a message of dissatisfaction will reconsider and come back to him. For now he has brushed aside questions about whether he will run as an independent if he loses. "I'm going to make it easy for everybody and win the primary," he said.
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.