The question of party identity takes on weird new relevance now thatJoe Lieberman is cross-dressing in Connecticut. Defeated once as aDemocrat, tiresome Joe is now running again as an independent. Only hesays he’s still a loyal Dem at heart. How can we know he’s not lying?

Karl Rove and the Republicans appear to think otherwise. They arepouring serious money into Lieberman’s campaign and dumping a classicRepublican smear job on Ned Lamont, the legit Democrat. Ned, remember,beat Joe fair and square in the party primary.

But Joe agrees with Karl that Ned is a threat to the Republic becauseLamont thinks Bush’s war in Iraq is a bloody catastrophe–as do nearlytwo-thirds of the American public.

Something about this odd drama doesn’t pass the smell test. I suspectKarl and Joe have made a deal. A back-scratching understanding, youmight say.

Karl says to Senator Joe: We will help you beat Ned in the generalelection and you will agree to cross over and sign up with theRepublicans–if we need your vote to retain our majority in the Senate.

Joe says: It’s a deal–but only if my fellow Democrats make a sincereeffort to support Ned and defeat me. Otherwise, if the Dems go limp andsell out Ned, I have to stay loyal.

Karl: Fair enough. How do we make the terms of the deal clear toeveryone without announcing it?

Joe: You very publically dump the no-name Republican candidate in the race. I startattacking the patriotism of anti-war Democrats like Bernie Sanders,who’s running for senator in Vermont. We both cut up Ned Lamont withthe same vicious slurs–portraying him as a fellow traveler for alQaeda.

Karl: Excellent. I have a hit group called Vets for Freedom, who willstart tossing the mud.

Joe: My Democratic pals will understand completely. This is the kind ofbipartisan civility I’ve always sought in politics.

Okay, I cannot prove any of the above. But it is at least clear thatthe devious and undependable Lieberman has devised a very nasty dilemmafor his erstwhile friends in the Democratic minority. Most of them havedeclared their support for the party nominee, Ned Lamont, and at leastsome of them seem sincere. That demonstrates the party establishment’srespect for the new energies that Lamont’s anti-war supporters arebringing to the party.

But Joe’s flagrant turncoat routine effectively warns the partyregulars to back off–or else.

His suggested logic goes like this: the Dems will win the Connecticutsenate seat by doing nothing from the national level, since it’s eithergoing to be Lamont or Lieberman. But if the party establishmentprovokes Joe by putting real heft behind Lamont’s campaign, then itrisks losing the seat. If Joe wins with the heavy support provided byBush and Republicans, he may feel compelled to walk out.

Some Democrats–I hear this second-hand–are flirting with this “golimp” strategy. Others are arguing intensely that the party has nooption except to put all of its weight behind the party nominee and, ineffect, make damn sure Ned wins. Above all, they have to demonstratetheir commitment to Lamont followers, those new rank-and-file forceswho harbor deep skepticism about the party’s timid leadership.

If Democrats fail to demonstrate their genuineness, they may very wellcreate a much more serious problem for the party down the road. ALieberman victory, regardless of how it occurs, would encourage therebels and insurgents from within the party to skip party primaries asbogus events and run their challenge candidates in the generalelections–just like wayward Joe.

These rebel challengers might not win, but they could rally enoughdissenting voters to bring down a lot of incumbent Dems. Joe tossedparty identity out the window; why shouldn’t they?

This would be a far bloodier path to reinvigorating the Democraticparty–bringing it down in order to rebuild it–but some reformagitators have noticed that it works. Fratricidal bloodletting was howthe Republican Right got its groove and gained its power over the otherparty.