Joe Lieberman, Insurgent

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Thank you, Connecticut Democrats, for showing a refined sense of humor. You have delivered a victory for irony by telling Joe Lieberman to get lost. Only that could have spurred Lieberman into doing what is needed for political success in these days of global political rage.

In response to his humiliating defeat in the state's Democratic primary, the genial Lieberman finally got angry and got going. In non-concession speeches Wednesday morning, Lieberman showed the passion and focus that had been lacking in his somnolent primary campaign. And he found the enemy he needs to make a successful run as an independent in November.

That enemy is the establishment, in this case the Democratic Party's establishment leadership, which dutifully kicked in endorsements and cash to Ned Lamont before Lieberman's political corpse had even cooled. Overnight Lamont and his networking rebels had to hand over the insurgency mantle to none other than Lieberman, who is now the underdog outcast independent in the Connecticut Senate race.

Irony has never been a formidable or enduring political tool. But Connecticut Democrats have given Lieberman a lot of room to conduct the kind of ad hominem, obsessional attacks on opponents that too often pass for political discourse and wit in the Internet age. He immediately lobbed a national security stink bomb by claiming that terrorists would welcome a Lamont victory.

Who better to represent the anger and even hatred that constituents feel for the sinister, unseen forces messing with their lives than this about-to-be-fired pol who was done in by a rich entrepreneur backed at first by elitist techies and now by incumbent party bosses who previously were for Lieberman? If Ned Lamont did not exist, Joe Lieberman would have had to invent him.

Angrier-than-thou is the spreading zeitgeist of international politics in the morning of the 21st century. War, uncertain economic times and vertiginous change in social and cultural matrices leave in the dust the sweet reasonableness and hopes for consensus-building that the old establishmentarian Lieberman practiced. So do the slash-and-burn politics that George W. Bush and Karl Rove perfected, exploited and intend to bequeath to the Republican Party for eternity.

With the U.S. effort in Iraq faltering because of confused leadership here, and the first anniversary of the calamity of Hurricane Katrina on the horizon, there is plenty of reason for anger at Bush and his singularly inept, callous administration.

I intend to take nothing away from those in Connecticut and elsewhere who vented their frustrations on symbolic stand-ins for Bush last Tuesday. But mistaking anger for political wisdom is a dangerous luxury in democracies. It can become an all-consuming fire that destroys rather than builds. For the power-hungry and opportunistic, anger is an especially attractive instrument of manipulation in the political toolbox.

The especially angry year of 1968 ended with the election of tricky Dick Nixon, not poet-philosopher Gene McCarthy. In 2002 in France, protest votes for racist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly propelled him into a presidential runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac. Chirac easily won the general election but then proved to be ineffectual in dealing with the ugly strain of national resentments that the campaign unleashed.

Protest votes are not consequence-free luxuries, in France or in Connecticut. The task for responsible politicians is to acknowledge the anger and to channel it into problem-solving rather than into pointless venting or an endless seeking of partisan advantage. Unfortunately, Bush and Rove show an inability or a lack of interest in the problem-solving approach. Increasingly, their critics do the same.

Anger over Iraq in particular helped lay Lieberman low, and that is entirely appropriate. This vote was an expression of frustration with the unending stream of implausible plans for victory coming out of the White House and the Pentagon and the lack of credible alternatives from Congress. That expression needs to be heard and accommodated.

For that we need serious politicians working together to craft a bipartisan and realistic effort to find an honorable exit from Iraq, where the U.S. presence risks becoming not only ineffective but intolerable to the Iraqis themselves. That in turn means reshaping the U.S. strategic presence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Who are those serious politicians? They include senators such as John Warner, the Republican from Virginia; Jack Reed, the sensible Democrat from Rhode Island; and, yes, the iconoclastic Republican from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel. Come to think of it, we sure could use the seasoned and usually sober Joe Lieberman to help find the center of gravity for a better approach on Iraq. Thanks, Connecticut, for reminding everybody, including and most of all Lieberman.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company