When Joe Lieberman bowed out of the 2004 Democratic presidential race, he took the stage to the sound of an unrepentant Frank Sinatra singing "My Way." Now as the three-term Connecticut senator faces a suddenly vexing August primary challenge from antiwar businessman Ned Lamont, Lieberman is again channeling his inner Sinatra.
"I'm going to be the kind of senator that I believe it is my responsibility to be," the hawkish Lieberman said to me last week at the start of a soliloquy that ranged from portentous to fatalistic. "If that doesn't work politically, so be it. Life and service will go on."
Moments later, as a staffer drove us through the blue-collar suburbs of New Haven, Lieberman invoked Old Blue Eyes: "I don't want to be too self-psychoanalytical about it," he said. "But to quote the great philosopher Frank Sinatra, I'm going to do it my way." Then Lieberman quoted his political theme song with word-for-word precision: "For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught."
How has Lieberman gone in six years from being the first Jewish vice-presidential nominee to a senator brooding about the possible final curtain of his political career? When Lamont formally declared his candidacy a little more than two weeks ago, he sneered, "I doubt that anybody will call me 'George Bush's favorite Democrat.'" That sobriquet, which bitterly galls Lieberman, is rooted in the senator's early and still unabashed support for the Iraq war.
As a punching bag for left-wing activists, Lieberman somehow ranks up there with Tom DeLay and Dick Cheney. Yet according to the National Journal's 2005 Senate vote rankings, Lieberman's centrist record is on par with that of West Virginia's Robert Byrd, the octogenarian war critic lionized by the blogosphere.
Other Democrats are forgiven their ideological transgressions, but never Lieberman. In Pennsylvania, Senate challenger Bob Casey has overwhelming party support even though he is antiabortion and supported Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. (Lieberman, in contrast, is pro-choice and voted against Alito.) It is almost forgotten that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein supported all of Bush's deficit-creating 2001 tax cuts. (Lieberman voted against them.) And Hillary Clinton, the winter-book favorite for the 2008 nomination, has not exactly been marching in antiwar demonstrations.
There is no simple explanation for why Joe-mentum (what Lieberman hoped for in the New Hampshire primary where he finished a dismal fifth) has turned into Joe-mad-at-him. Part of it may be that Lieberman's greatest strength (the self-righteous independence that propelled him onto the 2000 ticket when Al Gore wanted to signal his distaste for Bill Clinton's sexual transgressions) is also his greatest weakness. For some activists, memories of that 2000 campaign die hard, from Lieberman's sputtering debate performance against Cheney to off-message comments about the Florida recount.
George W. Bush and Co. also appear to be working overtime to undermine Lieberman's Democratic credentials. Republicans, apparently without Lieberman's complicity, have floated the senator's name as a possible replacement for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Then Bush himself, after this year's State of the Union address, grabbed Lieberman in what appeared to be something between a manly embrace and a sloppy kiss. For his part, Lieberman insisted, as he ruled out an independent campaign for the Senate, "I am a Democrat. I believe in the Democratic Party. I believe in the vision of JFK and, I must say, the vision of Bill Clinton."
But what rankles liberals the most is Lieberman's refusal, even now, to give ground on the war. Appearing on "Face the State," a half-hour interview show that aired on Hartford television (WFSB) last Sunday, Lieberman said about Iraq, "I've been there four times now. I can tell you that about two-thirds of Iraq is pretty peaceful. Around the Sunni Triangle, around Baghdad, that's the worst part. And that's getting better."
Such an optimistic, glass-half-full view of Iraq is not shared by most Democrats in Lieberman's home state. This partially explains one of the oddest survey results of the 2006 campaign season: According to a mid-February Quinnipiac University poll, Lieberman has a higher approval rating among Connecticut Republicans (71 percent) than Democrats (57 percent). Still, most Democratic senators with overall 63 percent approval and no serious Republican opponent would be tempted to prematurely break out the election-night champagne.
Instead, Lieberman is facing his most daunting political challenge since he upended maverick Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker in 1988. Lamont -- a Greenwich cable-television entrepreneur who is the well-born great-grandson of J.P. Morgan's business partner -- impetuously entered the race when he could not find an elected official to take on Lieberman over the war. As Lamont, who may invest as much as $500,000 of his own money in the contest, put it to me modestly, "I wasn't my own first choice."
The candidate and I were chatting on a recent Saturday evening in a Starbucks in downtown Westport as Lamont waited to participate in a peace vigil. This is the heart of affluent Fairfield County and the epicenter of antiwar sentiment, but Lamont, dressed in a blue V-neck sweater over a flannel shirt, went unrecognized in the crowded coffee shop. "If you want to know my journey about why I felt this country was going off its moorings," Lamont said, still growing accustomed to candidate-speak, "it was three substantive things for me. Terri Schiavo, the 'bridge to nowhere'" -- a reference to an infamous Alaskan boondoggle in a Senate appropriations bill -- "and then the war."
At this moment, even though Lamont had not raised his voice as he discussed his animating passions, a towheaded 3-year-old at the next table began shouting, "Hey, hey, no talking." For a minute or so, Lamont tried to stick to his narrative, which only provoked the child to bellow, "Hey, no talking loud." Finally, the candidate paused to joke that maybe the day's headline should read, "Lamont's Message Fails to Resonate With Younger Voters."
Lamont's announcement speech was studded with Howard Dean-like rhetoric ("You're not losing a senator, you're gaining a Democrat"), but it became clear during our interview that he should not be cubbyholed as a hardcore Deaniac. Lamont ruefully confessed that his favorite for the 2004 nomination was Bob Graham, the soft-spoken, antiwar Florida senator who dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. In his ideologically free-form efforts to find a candidate who could defeat Bush, Lamont even donated $500 to Lieberman's presidential efforts.
The national party establishment is expected to rally around Lieberman, but Lamont at least has Jim Dean, the brother of a fellow named Howard, in his camp. "I think it's good for the party, no matter how many votes Ned gets. He's getting people fired up," said Jim Dean, who heads Democracy for America, the grass-roots organization that his brother founded before becoming Democratic Party chairman.
While Lamont probably will raise enough money to wage a competitive campaign, he is, beyond his own contributions, heavily dependent on Internet fundraising. Tom Swan, Lamont's campaign manager, said, "I hope we're the first campaign in this country that can take full advantage of the net roots." The activist Web site ActBlue claims to have raised $141,000 for Lamont from 2,400 donors. At the same time, left-of-center blogs regularly voice their overly personalized scorn for Lieberman. A brief moment of peevishness from the senator in a radio interview provoked this recent posting from Firedoglake: "I thought we would be a lot further along in the campaign process before Holy Joe wigged out, but it seems we've gotten deep under his skin."
Normally, none of this would be enough to give a little-known candidate like Lamont much hope in a state where registered Democrats declared by a 61-30 percent margin in the Quinnipiac poll that Lieberman deserves to be reelected. But Connecticut, once dominated by a formidable Democratic organization, has scant history of contested primaries. In fact, until recently a challenger had to win 15 percent of the vote at the state party convention to even be allowed on the primary ballot. Both the Lieberman and Lamont campaigns anticipate a low-turnout primary at the height of the August vacation season in which intensity of support may matter more than statewide polling numbers.
Even though Lamont plans to get on the ballot through petitions, the state party convention at the end of May could turn the national spotlight on the Lieberman primary challenge. Although the endorsement vote at the convention is largely symbolic, Lamont could conceivably win the backing of one-third of the 1,608 delegates -- a seismic rumble that would transform a contest in which the conventional wisdom is still that the incumbent will win in a walk. That is why Lieberman is now spending his spare hours phoning local Democratic chairmen and -women, while his challenger has appeared before two dozen town committees.
"I'm going to towns that haven't seen a senator in decades," Lamont boasted. When I asked whether this was also an implicit criticism of Connecticut's popular Democratic senior senator, Christopher Dodd, Lamont refused to back down. "It's a criticism of the system," he replied. "These guys haven't been challenged in years."
There is an element of truth to Lamont's jibe. Lieberman did not even really campaign for reelection here in 2000, since he was simultaneously running for vice president. When the senator appeared on "Face the State" last weekend, host Al Terzi pointedly noted that it had been 11 months since Lieberman had last appeared on the program. A small moment, but emblematic of the feeling that Lieberman, like many veteran senators, has taken his home-state constituency for granted.
Until now, Connecticut Democrats have accepted Lieberman's hawkish views and independent gestures as part of the whole package. Clyde McKee, a political science professor at Trinity College in Hartford, expressed the traditional view of Lieberman when he said, "I think that Democrats who don't like his positions would say that he has integrity." But if Democrats get the feeling that Lieberman no longer even bothers to hear them out, their tolerance for his deviance from liberal orthodoxy could rapidly erode.
That is what Lieberman is now running hard to prevent -- even scorning the political gospel that an incumbent senator should ignore his primary opponent. "We decided to engage this guy early because the senator takes this race seriously," said Sean Smith, Lieberman's campaign manager. As a Lieberman fundraising e-mail that went out Tuesday put it, "This campaign is sure to be a tough one; my opponent has not been shy about misrepresenting my record, and has made it clear that to try to build himself up he has no problem trying to tear me down." Also this week Lieberman, who had about $4 million in campaign funds at the beginning of the year, has just begun a statewide radio buy with a soft-spoken commercial stressing his environmental record.
Yet even as he tries to extinguish the political fires of 2006, Lieberman makes no secret of his longing for an era when political passions smoldered rather than sizzled. When I asked the Connecticut senator why he has become such a lightning rod, Lieberman said, "It is something that speaks to this moment in our politics, which is very partisan and very much are you with us 100 percent or are you not with us? And there's a lot of -- I can't think of a softer word than hatred. In the Democratic Party there are a lot of people who have the same kind of hatred -- which I find is self-defeating and almost certainly wrong -- towards Bush that a lot of Republicans had toward Clinton."
Thursday night Joe Lieberman will be in an honored place at the Connecticut Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner in Hartford with his Senate colleague Barack Obama as the guest speaker. Ned Lamont, who will be seated at the same table with Jim Dean, expects to be somewhere in the rafters. But Lamont's shadow will not be far from Lieberman, the senator who, with a few breaks during a recount in Florida, might right now be the sitting vice president of the United States.