Joe Lieberman may bill himself as a staunch Democrat, but as he fights this summer to salvage his political career, he is borrowing some rhetorical tactics from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Last night, the three-term, hawkish Connecticut senator clashed in a televised debate with the no-term, dovish Ned Lamont, the cable mogul and political neophyte who is threatening to derail Lieberman in a Democratic primary slated for Aug. 8. This the hottest political story of the season -- a former vice presidential candidate may get drummed out of his own party by the antiwar liberal base -- and the fact that Lieberman even agreed to a debate was an admission of his serious political vulnerability.
Another sign of weakness was his decision to cast aside his avuncular manner and adopt the persona of an attack dog prowling for raw meat. Lamont was the intended meat. Lieberman has apparently decided that he can ill afford the high road; instead, his only choice at this point is to build himself back up by trying to tear down his opponent.
Lieberman's goal was to erase the perception -- actually, it's the reality -- that this Connecticut primary is a party referendum on him. He wants to make the primary a referendum on Lamont, the novice challenger who, by definition, is far less experienced. In reality, Lieberman's career is imperiled because many Connecticut Democrats see him as a pro-war toady for President Bush, somebody who has aided and abetted a strategic and military disaster in Iraq, somebody who has repeatedly failed to ask the tough questions and hold Bush accountable. So Lieberman's intent is to make Lamont the bad guy, to paint Lamont as an "inconsistent, unpredictable" character who "offers mostly criticism, negativism, and pessimism."
Those were Lieberman's words last night. The thing is, they sounded a lot like the way Bush sought to depict John Kerry in 2004.
Lieberman even claimed that Lamont has had six different positions on what to do about Iraq, which, again, conjured memories of Bush's attack on Kerry as a waffler who lacks the courage of his convictions. In truth, Lamont did have a wobbly moment a few weeks ago when he and his people weren't in total sync about what should be done, at a time when Senate Democrats were offering two resolutions aimed at starting troop withdrawals. But Lamont has generally hewed to a "troops out" stance, which he repeated during the debate; he also repeated a jab at Lieberman that he has consistently employed during the primary campaign: "We have 135,000 of our bravest troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war. And I say that those who got us into this mess should be held accountable....The war is a mistake, and we should admit it."
At times, Lieberman tried out an old Reagan debate line ("There you go again"), whenever Lamont sought to paint Lieberman as being disloyal to the Democratic party. But it was another sign of weakness that Lieberman felt compelled to tell viewers about how often he has disagreed with Bush ("on everything from tax cuts for the rich, to privatizing Social Security"). And it's true, as Lieberman said, that he has voted with his Democratic colleagues roughly 90 percent of the time.
But voting records can be misleading. Three random examples: Lieberman was one of the last Senate Democrats to join the fight opposing the Bush plan to partially privatize Social Security. Second, while Lieberman did vote against Bush high court nominee Sam Alito, his initial act was to oppose any prospect for a Democratic filibuster that might have blocked Alito at the outset. Third, he helped Lynne Cheney (wife of Dick) create an academic organization that has assailed university professors who criticized Bush's foreign policy. (Lamont, however, didn't make these points. He looked at times like a deer caught in the headlights, predictable behavior for a guy making his debut as debater on national television.)
I have no idea whether Lieberman has helped or hurt himself with Connecticut Democrats who plan to vote in the primary. Will they be turned off by Lieberman's aggressive behavior, and the fact that he treated Lamont as excrement attached to the underside of the senatorial shoe? Or will they give him points for political courage, for sticking to his guns on Iraq despite the fact that the most motivated primary voters are probably the folks who hate the war?
I tend to doubt that the answer to the latter question will be "Yes." I suspect that most primary voters will resent the fact that Lieberman (like Bush) basically implied that those who oppose this war are endangering national security. As Lieberman said to Lamont at one point, "If you want to turn Iraq over to the terrorists, follow the policy you have enunicated."
That was two-fisted stuff. And as the hour end, one final thought struck me:
Why wasn't Lieberman this tough when he faced off in the 2000 vice presidential debate against Dick Cheney? Why was he far more schmoozy with Bush's taciturn sidekick? (As Connecticut radio host Colin McEnroe recalled this morning, "he let Dick Cheney walk into the debate as Darth Vader and out as Mister Rogers.")
Lieberman had better hope that, on Aug. 8, Connecticut Democrats don't ask themselves the same thing.
And I'll have more to say about this primary -- and the national Democrats' predicament -- in a newspaper column slated to run Sunday or Monday.