A Fight for the Party’s Soul

A Fight for the Party’s Soul

The Lamont/Lieberman Democratic primary race is a referendum not only on the Iraq War but on a new vision for the Democratic Party.


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.

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.”

This reaction to Lamont is one that Lieberman failed to anticipate when he noticed that a “Greenwich millionaire,” as his increasingly shrill campaign ads label Lamont, was nipping at his heels. Shaken by the seriousness of the challenge, Lieberman has tried to dismiss Lamont as a “single issue” antiwar challenger backed by loony-left bloggers, while his backers have taken to hysterical grumbling, like that of the DLC’s Wittmann and Steven Nider in a recent Hartford Courant column, about how “far too many Democrats view George W. Bush as a greater threat to the nation than Osama bin Laden.”

“They keep talking about how ‘Ned and the blogger left are attacking bipartisan Joe,'” says Lamont. “That is so wrong. They’ve been so over-the-top about this that people don’t take them seriously. When I meet people, when they hear me talk about these issues, they recognize that I’m coming at them from a very mainstream place.”

Lamont’s a reasonably standard liberal who agrees with Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy on most social and economic issues. But he is not a populist rebel in the mold of Paul Wellstone. His blood runs blue. Indeed, with his summer suit and Kennedy-perfect haircut, he looks for all the world like a Doonesbury extra. Maybe in some circles, that’s an insult. But not in Connecticut, where the cartoon was born and where voters have sent their share of liberal patricians to Washington–including Lieberman’s predecessor, Lowell Weicker, now an enthusiastic Lamont backer. Once upon a time, they ran and won, as Weicker did, on the Republican line. And Lamont is not shy about the fact that “my family were internationalist Republicans going back for generations.” But as the candidate’s father says, “The Republican Party, frankly, no longer [represents] my viewpoints. The so-called moderate Republicans are rare and declining, especially in recent years.” The father says he stopped voting for Republicans in 1992; the son has been a Democrat a lot longer–inspired in his youth, he says, by Bobby Kennedy.

It is that Bobby Kennedy connection that may be the most useful reference point for Lamont’s candidacy. In 1968 two Democratic senators challenged President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitions for a second full term. One was Minnesota’s Eugene McCarthy, who ran a campaign primarily defined by his opposition to the Vietnam War. The other was Kennedy, who opposed the war but offered a far broader promise of reform and renewal–for the Democratic Party and America. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, with its emphasis on fighting poverty and making real the promise of the American dream for all Americans, argued that the expensive war in Southeast Asia was robbing this country of the resources and energy required to achieve progress at home. Lamont offers an updated version of the Kennedy message. “Rather than spend $250 million a day in Iraq, we’ve got to start investing in education,” says Lamont, who has volunteered for years as a teacher in a Bridgeport high school and whose best campaign commercials feature former students, all of them African-Americans and Latinos, chanting: “Go for it, Mr. Lamont!”

Lieberman finds himself forced into the Lyndon Johnson role, about right from an ideological standpoint. He’s more conservative than most Democrats, but he’s not Ann Coulter in drag–even if Coulter is backing him. Lieberman has been the most vocal Democratic backer of Bush’s foreign policies, and he has also sided with Senate Republicans to block attempts to filibuster Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination, to explore Social Security privatization, to back free trade and corporate bailouts, to intercede in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case and, of course, to engage in tiresome moralizing about Bill Clinton’s extramarital shenanigans. Yet, he’s got a lifetime AFL-CIO “pro-labor” voting record of 84 percent. Connecticut unions have split in this contest, with the labor federation backing Lieberman and the state’s teachers unions backing Lamont. Lieberman’s also got endorsements from Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and liberal Democrats like California’s Barbara Boxer and Connecticut’s senior senator, Chris Dodd, as well as Hillary and Bill Clinton–although, notably, Feingold and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry have refused to endorse the senator, as has Lieberman’s 2000 running mate, Al Gore.

Even as he brandishes his endorsements, however, and declares, “I am running based on my record as a progressive Democrat and…Ned is running against me based on my stand on one issue: Iraq,” Lieberman seems compromised and desperate–the embodiment of a Democratic Party that lacks fresh blood, ideas and energy. In the one televised debate between the candidates, Lieberman borrowed Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” presidential debate line, and he paraphrased Lloyd Bentsen’s “you’re no Jack Kennedy” jab from the his vice presidential debate. The senator interrupted Lamont constantly and attacked him with a venom that never surfaced in his 2000 vice presidential debate with Dick Cheney. “You get the idea that Lieberman has a sense of entitlement, that it’s his office and no one has a right to take it from him,” says Connecticut Democratic activist John Wirzbicki, who writes the Lamont-friendly blog Connecticut Blue.

Lamont’s counter to Lieberman in the debate was upbeat rather than defensive. He let the senator take his shots, then talked about what ought to distinguish Democrats from Republicans. It wasn’t just the war. It was much broader, a vision of engagement with the world and a search for solutions to fundamental challenges at home. It’s a liberal vision, to be sure. But Lamont, descended from all those generations of Republican internationalists and comfortable portraying himself as a Washington outsider–he opens just about every speech with the line: “My name is Ned Lamont, and I’m not a traditional politician. I started up a business from scratch”–believes it is a vision that has appeal far beyond the blogosphere and MoveOn meet-ups.

That’s essential, because if Lieberman loses the primary, he promises to mount a fall campaign for re-election on his own “Connecticut for Lieberman” line. The initial spin was that Lieberman would win a three-way race by isolating Democrat Lamont on the left and a Republican on the right. But sentiments are shifting. After Lieberman announced his sore-loser strategy, Hillary Clinton said she would back the party nominee in November, and it’s no secret that Senate minority leader Harry Reid and other top Democrats have begun behind-the-scenes conversations with Lamont. Whether the AFL-CIO and other national interest groups stick with Lieberman will be a critical question, but the best bet right now is that if Lamont wins the primary, he’ll have a reasonably united Democratic front behind him as he takes his campaign to suburbs where independents and Republicans predominate. “Don’t tell me that being opposed to this war and saying that we could be spending money that’s going to Iraq more usefully at home is a liberal message, or a Democratic message,” he says. “There’s nothing in that message that a lot of Connecticut Republicans would disagree with.”

Lamont’s confidence about his ability to win more than just antiwar protest votes is well founded. It’s common on the Connecticut campaign trail to run into Democratic voters like Harriet Scureman. “I used to be against Joe, because of the war and a bunch of other issues,” says Scureman, a retired Xerox employee from Norwalk. “But as the campaign’s gone on, I’ve realized I’m for Ned Lamont. You can’t meet him, listen to him, and not come to the conclusion that he would be a great senator.” If a majority of Connecticut voters reach the same conclusion in August and again in November, it will not merely be a defeat for a single centrist senator who supports the war. It will also be a win for a new Democratic mindset, one that displays the energy, enthusiasm and vision that the party will need if it intends to lead the country out of the wilderness of the Bush years.

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