Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lieberman, the Director's Cut

The fruits of my sojourn to Connecticut are available here, in a newspaper column about the liberal revolt against Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. Thanks in part to his support for President Bush on the war in Iraq, he's facing a serious challenge from antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in an August party primary. This, in itself, is a very rare event, because Connecticut has long been a state where party discipline reigns and incumbents are generally revered.

Notwithstanding the length of my print dispatch, however, there is much more to be said on the subject. So today, in the parlance of our DVD culture, I'm going to restore some deleted scenes, and append some director's commentary:

Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith, during a long conversation in his office, said: "The senator does feel a little wounded (by the personal nature of the liberal attacks on him). But once his competitive juices start flowing, it becomes a fight. And he also feels inspired by the past: the strong, idealistic foreign policy, as exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. That's the Democratic party that he joined. He has been consistent to those values his whole career.
"So it's a little discouraging to see that a group in your own party -- even if it is a minority -- somehow wants to push you out, for representing those three presidents."

Smith is saying, in a sense, that Lieberman's hawkishness on Iraq is consistent with the muscular foreign policy liberalism that characterized Democrats back in the era when they consistently won national elections.

This is an argument that also animates other Democrats today; I heard the same thing in North Carolina last weekend from Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, an '08 presidential hopeful, when he delivered a speech at a party fundraiser.

It was also articulated last weekend in a New York Times magazine piece by political commentator Peter Beinart, who wrote that Democrats right now "cannot tell a coherent story about the post-9/11 world...because they have not found their usable past, and they have not conquered "their ideological amnesia."

What Smith is saying is that Lieberman -- whether one agrees with him or not -- at least has a coherent post-9/11 foreign policy that harkens back to Democratic roots. That strikes me as the core message in Lieberman's battle with Lamont. Lieberman said on the radio recently that his liberal detractors are mostly fixated on hating Bush, and punishing anyone who agrees with Bush on anything -- but that such an attitude doesn't begin to address the realities of a dangerous world. And Lieberman's attempts to define himself in the tradition of JFK (more specifically, the Cold War liberal version of JFK) could sway some primary voters, because Kennedy remains an unassailable party icon -- especially in Connecticut, and especially among the older Democratic loyalists who remember the JFK era.

But here's a problem with the Lieberman pitch:
There was a fourth president who embodied that muscular foreign policy liberalism, Lyndon Johnson. Yet Lieberman is not invoking him. LBJ inherited Kennedy's commitment to rolling back the communists in Vietnam (which in itself was an application of the hawkish Democratic credo; see David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest); and then LBJ expanded on the credo until that war consumed his presidency, split his party, and divided America.

Is it possible to embrace those traditional Democratic values -- including the urge to police the globe and spread democracy abroad -- without acknowledging that the hubris inherent in those values helped produce the debacle in Vietnam?
This question might well surface in Connecticut in the weeks ahead....because, after all, it was Joe Lieberman, as a Yalie in 1970, who cut his teeth in Connecticut politics as an anti-Vietnam war activist.

And there's another wrinkle in the current Connecticut race: Since Lieberman is seeking to paint himself as the ultimate Democrat, why has he dropped hints that, if party voters reject him in an August primary, he might refuse to endorse Lamont and instead run as an independent this fall? Wouldn't that scenario guarantee a split among Democratic voters in November, and aid the Republicans at a time when the GOP seems so vulnerable? (As state Republican chairman George Gallo said not long ago, the Lieberman imbroglio "is music to my ears.")

Lieberman hinted at an independent candidacy a few weeks ago, and I asked Sean Smith if that scenario was possible.
Smith said, "The senator expects to win (a primary), and he will always be a Democrat."
Not exactly a Shermanesque renuniciation of the idea.
"So," I said, "that means you're not ruling out running as an independent."
Smith: "I don't want to speculate on that, to be honest. We're not dealing with contingencies."

No wonder Lieberman's Connecticut critics are upset. In the words of popular radio talk show host Colin McEnroe, "There's just something about Joe's smiling Buddha composure that drives so many Democrats insane. I wouldn't put it past Joe to run as an independent. He just wants to get back to Washington. For Joe right now, it's all about Joe."


Addendum: To hear Lieberman tangling recently with McEnroe on the air -- it got pretty nasty -- check out this. Scroll down to "Lieberman blames bloggers," then click audio.