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A Fight for the Party's Soul | The Nation

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A Fight for the Party's Soul

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Never mind the internecine Democratic politics of Connecticut and the role that ethnic, labor and local sentiments will play in deciding the primary contest between centrist Senator Joe Lieberman and liberal challenger Ned Lamont. Never mind that the contest has made Connecticut the front line in an increasingly bitter brawl involving MoveOn.org and the liberal blogosphere on one side and the Democratic Leadership Council and a substantial contingent of the party's Washington elite on the other. Never mind that both sides spend inordinate amounts of time debating whether George W. Bush thanked Lieberman for the senator's unwavering support of the Iraq War with a slobbering kiss or merely a peck on the cheek when the two embraced at a State of the Union address.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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When the votes are counted on August 8, the whole of the Connecticut primary, and much of the national debate over the direction of the Democratic Party, will be boiled down to a one-line pronouncement. It will either be "Antiwar challenger trounces Lieberman" or "Lieberman prevails over war foes." The reduction of this complex contest to a headline may not be entirely fair, or entirely accurate. Yet it will be understandable, because to the surprise of just about everyone, the man Democrats nominated for Vice President in 2000 is in a fight for his political life with a previously unknown candidate who decided a few months ago to surf the wave of anger stirred by Lieberman's emergence as the loudest Democratic defender of the occupation of Iraq.

Of course, if Lieberman prevails, antiwar liberals will claim that Lamont took on an impossible task and did better than expected. But few who have paid attention to the dynamics on the ground in Connecticut--where a recent Quinnipiac poll found 73 percent of voters disapprove of Bush's handling of the war--or the broader national debate about how Democrats should address the occupation of Iraq will see it that way. Lamont may have started as a "nobody"--albeit a very wealthy and politically savvy "nobody"--but a smart, well-funded campaign, generous media attention and the hard work of a very attractive candidate and his energetic grassroots supporters will by election day have made the challenger Lieberman's match. Indeed, a mid-July Quinnipiac poll had Lamont ahead 51 to 47. As such, the Connecticut primary will be a no-excuses test of whether Democratic voters--who tell pollsters they desperately want a clean break with Bush and his war but who have not always embraced candidates who propose to make it--are now willing to hold prominent Democratic officials accountable for facilitating the madness of King George. If Connecticut Democrats reject Lieberman, Democrats in Washington, including 2008 presidential prospect Hillary Clinton, will have to take notice. If Lieberman prevails on August 8, or if he loses in the primary but wins as an independent candidate in November, then the DLC and its amen corner will argue more aggressively than before that the Democratic Party and its candidates must continue to eschew not just a tough antiwar stance but the general opposition to all things Bush that grassroots activists demand. "This is a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party," argues the DLC's Marshall Wittmann.

That's what's riding on Connecticut.

That's what's riding on Ned Lamont.

So why is the challenger seemingly so at ease with just a few weeks to go before the primary? Why is Ned Lamont smiling? "I love being in this race," the candidate declares, without a hint of irony, to the crowd at an Indian restaurant in downtown Stamford after a long evening of answering questions he has answered a few hundred times before. That's the secret of Ned Lamont. He is not merely the "cable TV millionaire" reporters mention when seeking a shorthand description for the 52-year-old former newspaper editor, public radio host, local elected official, telecommunications entrepreneur and Democratic donor who was drawn into the race against Lieberman only after more prominent war foes begged off. Rather, he is a self-admitted political junkie who, like a rock critic who finally forms a band, has been waiting a very long time for this chance in the spotlight. Maybe a lifetime. After all, it's in his blood.

Lamont's great-grandfather Thomas Lamont, whose partnership with J.P. Morgan created the family fortune that has provided a firm financial base for Ned's business and political endeavors, was one of Woodrow Wilson's negotiators on the Treaty of Versailles. Ned's great-uncle Corliss was a leading figure in the American Civil Liberties Union and a founder of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee who successfully sued the Central Intelligence Agency in a groundbreaking challenge to domestic spying--and who would no doubt be proud of the Senate candidate's support of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's proposal to censure Bush for authorizing warrantless wiretaps. Lamont's father, Ted, an economist, helped administer the Marshall Plan after World War II and served with George Romney--Massachusetts Governor Mitt's liberal dad--in Richard Nixon's Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Our family always has believed in international cooperation, that the way to achieve a safer and freer world is through hard-working diplomacy and a good respect for the opinions of other countries in getting the job done, rather than seizing the military option too soon," Ted Lamont told a Connecticut reporter after his son announced the Senate candidacy. For his part, Ned Lamont speaks about the broad sweep of American foreign policy over the past century in the familiar language of someone who sat down for family dinners with those who shaped it. So when he talks about the war in Iraq, it is not as a shrill critic but rather as an old-school liberal internationalist who cannot believe that George Bush and Joe Lieberman have rejected diplomacy and smart strategies like containment for cowboy adventurism and neglect of fundamental realities in the Middle East. "This war is way outside the historical norm," Lamont says, arguing that the Administration has adopted "a go-it-alone strategy, a sense that we don't need allies, we don't have to listen to the rest of the world. That's contrary to the American tradition, and it's really not in our self-interest."

When Lamont offers his critique of "George Bush and Joe Lieberman's" foreign policies to the business owners who have gathered at the Indian restaurant in Stamford, several of whom make favorable references to "the House of Morgan," every head in the room nods. And when he quotes former Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff's Vietnam-era suggestion that America is strongest not when it brandishes arms but when it earns the respect of the world, the nodding heads are smiling. "This makes sense to me," says Pravin Banker, director of the Global Financial Network, who had introduced Lamont earlier in the evening. "It's refreshing to hear someone who knows about diplomacy, who recognizes that the US can do a better job of working with the world."

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