“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.
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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.
But in Connecticut, Lieberman’s political prosperity never translated into Democratic Party success. During his years in the Senate the Democrats lost the governorship and two Congressional districts; unaffiliated voters, long more numerous than Republicans, came to outnumber Democrats too. Through the 1990s, Connecticut progressives (including some of the same organizers behind Lamont’s campaign) waged a series of successful primary challenges to tepid party hacks in the legislature, effectively challenging Lieberman’s tactical thesis at the grassroots.
And in three Senate terms, Lieberman grew ever more distant from retail politics. The road signs to Ned Lamont’s victory were readable as early as 2000, when Lieberman insisted on running again for the Senate even after his nomination as vice president, which, had Gore won, would have guaranteed that conservative, corrupt Republican John Rowland would nominate Lieberman’s successor. Connecticut Democrats rejected home-state presidential candidate Lieberman by a massive margin in the 2004 presidential primary, and by this year–with his support for Alberto Gonzales and Samuel Alito, by flirtatiously campaigning to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as the Bush Administration’s Defense Secretary, with his mounting the barricades on behalf of expansive presential power–Lieberman’s political capital in his home state was virtually exhausted. Politicians supported him this year out of duty, but even in old Lieberman strongholds–his home city of New Haven, and working-class Bridgeport–voters could muster little enthusiasm. Connecticut, divided between the richest suburbs and some of the poorest cities in the country, is showing signs of deep change in how it does political business: in a bellwether gubernatorial primary that could mean as much to the future of Connecticut as the Lieberman-Lamont contest, Democrats endorsed New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, the son of a police officer and a fighting progressive who combines unwavering passion for social justice with a cool competence at finding common ground between middle-class and poor, cities and suburbs.
Does Lieberman have the strength to win as an independent? Don’t be deceived by the close final numbers in the Lieberman-Lamont primary. Lamont ran a consistent eight points or more ahead in most of the state, from affluent suburbs in Fairfield County to devastated mill towns in the state’s northeast. Lieberman finally pulled within striking distance of Lamont only because a handful of municipal Democratic organizations in the old Naugatuck Valley industrial zone, the last remnants of old-line party hacks, pulled out the stops on primary day. Those ghosts of the old Bailey machine won’t be available to Lieberman in the general election. Far from taking comfort in Connecticut’s base of unaffiliated voters, Lieberman should shudder: 11,000 of them switched into the Democratic Party for the August primary, and the evidence would suggest they voted against him.
By continuing to run as an indepenent, Lieberman leaves behind John Bailey’s Democratic Party once and for all. He is pinning his hopes, ironically enough, on Connecticut voters’ willingness more than a decade ago to embrace Lowell Weicker’s independent candidacy for governor after his Senate defeat. He’s counting, too, on the weakness of little-known Republican nominee Alan Schlesinger.
Lieberman in a sober moment might instead think back to 1970, the year he entered the state legislature. That year, with the country divided by Vietnam, three-term, once-invulnerable Connecticut cold war hawk Thomas Dodd, censured by the Senate for taking illegal campaign contributions and in failing health, decided to forgo a Democratic primary altogether. Instead, he entered the general election as an independent against Democratic nominee Joseph Duffey. Just enough of Dodd’s old supporters followed him out of the party to insure that both he and Duffey went down in flames. Dodd’s Senate seat went to an unknown Republican–Lowell Weicker.
Joe Lieberman, without a motivated base, fundraising capacity or resonant message, is now in free-fall. Lamont, with a vibrant organization, insisting that “‘Stay the course’ is not a winning strategy in Iraq and not a winning strategy for Connecticut,” points the way forward. Lieberman claimed he was defeated by “the old politics of partisan polarization.” In fact, he lost through personal arrogance, which belies his just-folks drone. Lieberman always claimed he could define the center by dodging between unions and environmentalists on one side, and privatizers and religious conservatives on the other. That dodge, after thirty years, left not a center but a political hollow man, devoid of compass, incapable of confronting a catastrophe in Iraq recognized widely by the Connecticut public. He was defeated by a reformer who insists that politics should stand for something after all.