The Irrelevance of Joe Lieberman

The Irrelevance of Joe Lieberman

The fall and rise of Joe Lieberman was one of the major political events of 2006. But in 2007, Beltway and netroots pundits agree, he will be as irrelevant as George W. Bush.


Here’s a New Year’s resolution that liberal bloggers and mainstream journalists can agree on: Let’s talk less about Joe Lieberman next year. A lot less.

For most of 2006, Connecticut’s junior senator was relentlessly lambasted by bloggers, who jump-started Ned Lamont’s successful primary campaign, and hailed by Beltway reporters, who celebrated Lieberman’s re-election by declaring him the most pivotal member of a closely divided Senate. The unrelenting criticism, glorification and analysis of the political enigma that is Joe Lieberman could certainly benefit from benign neglect in 2007.

Yet just as Augustine prayed, “grant me chastity…but not yet,” perhaps one last rehash of the fall and rise of Joe Lieberman is in order. Especially if it’s a freewheeling, three-hour knock-down debate with strategists from the three campaigns from Connecticut’s Senate race, local and national reporters, an academic pollster (and this writer) at a symposium convened by Lieberman’s alma mater, Yale University. That was the scene this month, in two feisty panels that showed Lieberman’s supporters and detractors still have plenty to fight about. (C-SPAN posted both panels here under “Conference on Connecticut Senate Race, Part 1.”)

Bill Hillsman, a maverick adman who worked for Paul Wellstone and Ralph Nader before helping Lamont’s primary campaign, argued that Democrats would not have won Congress “if it wasn’t for Ned Lamont.” Across the country, he said, Democrats’ antiwar ads and messages were pulled right from Lamont’s playbook. “My cat could have run those ads,” replied Lieberman strategist Roy Occhiogrosso. He said it was obvious that Democrats should run against the unpopular war. The two camps traded barbs in that vein for about half an hour.

Then the discussion turned to the elephant in the room, but absent from the panel. What exactly did those famous bloggers do?

Lieberman adviser Lanny Davis, who is believed to dislike bloggers almost as much as they dislike him, offered an intriguing analysis. He said the “blogosphere is reminiscent of the New Politics” of 1960s antiwar activists, who reformed the Democratic Party by challenging the party bosses, upending the national convention in 1968 and seizing the presidential nomination process in 1972. It almost sounded like praise for the budding netroots movement, but Davis was not finished. He went on to argue that the old antiwar protesters failed to understand they were “a slice of a slice of a slice of a slice of the electorate,” so they ran too far left and lost forty-nine states under George McGovern. Davis thinks that history repeated itself in Connecticut, where the antiwar movement could not carry the general election.

The problem with that analysis, as Lamont’s advisers explained, is it conflates one abnormal Senate race with the rest of the country. In Connecticut, Lieberman actually had an unusually enviable position: He was an incumbent and former Democrat running with strong support from the Republican Party, which had abandoned its nominee. Yet in the rest of the country voters re-elected every incumbent Democrat in Congress, rejected the Iraq War and evicted the Republican majority by handing thirty-seven House and Senate seats to the Democrats. (One can’t blame historical trends, either. Given redistricting, the losses far exceeded the incumbent party’s typical shortcomings after six years in the White House, as even conservative Rich Lowry has conceded.) Across the nation, a vast majority of Americans opposed the Iraq War and Republican government; it was a narrow “slice” of politicians who were out of touch.

While most of the analysis of the blogosphere was vague, by the Lieberman and Lamont camps alike, one new fact was disclosed during the panel. After some prodding, Occhiogrosso acknowledged that Lieberman’s consultants had produced an entire television ad attacking Markos Moulitsas, the Daily Kos blogger who had championed Lamont and appeared, willingly, in one of his commercials. The consultant who produced the spot, Carter Eskew, later told me it was designed to show that Lamont’s candidacy was “funded by outsiders” and “not homegrown.”

The ad turned out to be ineffective, so it never aired. Yet it proves bloggers are making their mark when incumbents consider attacking them, instead of their opponents. Moulitsas, who was attacked by several Republicans during the midterms, said he accepts it as an “occupational hazard of crashing the gate.” He is quick to emphasize, however, that none of it worked, because voters care about candidates, not bloggers. “The vast majority of voters don’t even know what a ‘blogger’ is,” he told me via e-mail.

After the campaigns, blogs and ads had been dissected, the panel turned to the future of Joe Lieberman himself. Among reporters, the consensus was that Lieberman is now emboldened, resurgent and more powerful than ever. This has also been the conventional wisdom in Washington. After the election, when Lieberman said he might caucus with Republicans, CNN reported the threat made him “one of the most powerful people in the United States Senate,” and demonstrated, in case you were curious, that he “has his mojo back.” (Connecticut bloggers were not impressed.)

While Lieberman’s new mojo has been a dominant theme in the Beltway, the New Year does promise change. Washington will focus on the agenda of the Democratic caucus, where Lieberman is at best a partial member, by mutual agreement. He will have little influence or goodwill within the incoming majority, beyond his formal committee chairmanship. Flirting further with changing parties would seem petty, even by Beltway standards, in the shadow of a Congressional calendar that promises to be packed with hearings and legislation on Iraq, terrorism, war profiteering, the economy and healthcare. Then the political attention will focus on candidates running to replace the unpopular President.

To distance themselves from Iraq, Republicans will likely continue to distance themselves from George W. Bush, eventually isolating him as a lame duck with scant party support. In the end, Bush will be just another stubborn politician, unable to confront a failed war, unwilling to heed the voters’ will, essentially standing alone. Once again, it will be hard to tell Bush and Lieberman apart. Yet this time, they would share more than a hawk’s failure. They would share irrelevance.

Now that would be worth talking about.

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