Mr. Lieberman's Choice

Thursday, August 10, 2006

CONNECTICUT Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's decision to move forward with an independent candidacy after his loss in the Democratic primary is a controversial choice but in this circumstance the correct one. The leaders of Mr. Lieberman's party lined up yesterday to endorse Ned Lamont, the political newcomer who rode a wave of antiwar fervor to upset the incumbent senator. That's not surprising: After all, Democratic voters selected Mr. Lamont to represent them. And as weak a competitor as the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, may be, those leaders have to worry that Mr. Lamont and Mr. Lieberman would split the vote and make way for Mr. Schlesinger or a replacement. (The state's popular Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell, has called on Mr. Schlesinger to step aside.)

But the critical question facing voters in November, as opposed to party leaders now, is who would make the better senator -- which is why we welcome Mr. Lieberman's decision to remain in the race. He would be, by far, the better choice for the people of Connecticut.

We are not among those who differ substantially with Mr. Lieberman on Iraq, but we recognize the widespread anger over the conduct of the war and wish Mr. Lieberman had done a better job, earlier in the campaign, of articulating his position and emphasizing his differences with President Bush. In reality, he has been offering sharp but constructive criticism since early in the war. If he had made that clearer -- and if he had run a more organized, more tightly disciplined campaign -- Mr. Lieberman might not have found himself in this unhappy predicament, only the fourth incumbent senator in the past quarter-century to lose a primary.

But Mr. Lieberman became an object of voter anger not only about the war but at the Bush administration in general. Because Mr. Bush has governed too often in a partisan way, many Democratic voters concluded that anyone who reached across the aisle in an effort to cooperate must be a sap. In such an environment, party orthodoxy comes to matter more than accomplishment; any assumption of good faith on the other side becomes a sign of weakness.

In that sense, the mirror-image defeat in Michigan of first-term Republican Rep. John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz was similarly disheartening. Mr. Schwarz, who backs embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights and opposes a ban on same-sex marriage, lost to a conservative whose race was fueled by the anti-tax Club for Growth. (We do not similarly mourn the defeat of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), whose intemperate behavior and attraction to conspiracy theories led voters in her district to boot her -- for a second time.)

Becoming beholden to orthodoxy is not healthy for either party. Compromise is not the equivalent of weakness, and Mr. Lieberman is no sap. He is a person of strong views who believes in listening to those who disagree with him and, if possible, finding common ground. The alternative is gridlock. Mr. Lieberman's brand of centrism and bipartisanship is a needed salve for a divided country, which could use more such lawmakers, not fewer.

The turnout in Connecticut was a record for a primary in the state, a healthy development and a measure of the intensity this election is generating. But the almost 300,000 who voted still represented a minority of the electorate; in 1998, the last nonpresidential election year that a Connecticut senatorial seat was up for grabs, close to 1 million voters came to the polls. We hope that the broader electorate will choose to return Mr. Lieberman to the Senate -- the best outcome for the state, the country, and, yes, even the Democratic Party.

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