“Shame on all of us if we allow a shrieking minority to hijack the primary,” fumed Connecticut House Speaker and Joe Lieberman loyalist James Amann during a rally barely more than a week before the state’s primary. Right up through primary day, Lieberman and his allies among the state’s political professionals remained locked in denial at his fall. But as an all-time record number of Democrats showed up at the primary polls, as one town after another with old, strong Democratic organizations swung to Ned Lamont, the shrieking minority turned out to be a troubled majority clearly persuaded that it was Lieberman who had been doing the hijacking all these years.
To understand why Ned Lamont’s primary victory matters–and it was very much Lamont’s victory, not just the former vice presidential candidate’s defeat–you’ve got to understand Connecticut and Lieberman’s place in it. Yes, this was a referendum on Iraq. (“Bring them home!” was the chant at Lamont’s victory speech.) Yes, it was a test of bloggers’ and net activists’ political influence. But it also illustrates more. For a long generation, ever since his election to the state legislature thirty-six years ago, Lieberman has tied his political fortunes to his distinct vision of how to rebuild Connecticut’s once-mighty Democratic machine, and by implication the party nationally. This was the culmination of a fight for the Connecticut Democratic soul that has been going on for years.
Lieberman’s mentor was longtime Connecticut Democratic boss John Bailey, John F. Kennedy’s Democratic National Chairman. Over the years Lieberman wrote two books on Bailey’s career and legacy. What particularly impressed the young Lieberman, fresh out of Yale Law School, was Bailey’s ability to hold together an early-1960s coalition of affluent suburban liberals and old-school urban machines dominated by socially conservative ethnic politics. How, Lieberman wondered, could Bailey’s formula for Democratic dominance be reinvented in the era of Nixon and Reagan? His answer, first evident during his wildly popular tenure as Connecticut attorney general in the 1980s, was to combine middle-class suburban populism on consumer and environmental matters with feints to the right on social issues, designed to revive the interest of conservative, largely Roman Catholic constituencies in Connecticut’s remaining working-class political machines and union halls. I vividly remember one visit Lieberman paid to the newspaper where I was the political reporter around 1984. Much of the interview was devoted to him explaining just why an ostensibly prochoice attorney general had spent months fighting in the courts to deny Medicaid funding for abortions.
As a tactic it worked, for a while. As attorney general in the ’80s Lieberman was the top draw on the Connecticut Democratic ticket and the state’s dominant political voice, outpolling governors and all others; it enabled him, in 1988, to beat the fiercely independent Republican Lowell Weicker by running to Weicker’s right. Nationally, Lieberman’s Connecticut formula turned into the core message of the Democratic Leadership Council.