Joe Lieberman may need more than another politic al party. He may need another state, as well.
The senator has clearly worn out his welcome among many back home in Connecticut – so much so that businessman Ned Lamont could very well beat him in the state Democratic primary. Lieberman now says that if he loses the Aug. 8 vote, he will run in November as an independent. The received wisdom is that Lieberman would win the general election by picking up Republican and independent voters. They seem to like him more than Democrats do. Everyone is dismissing the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger.
The received wisdom is often wrong. Polls showing Lieberman with a commanding lead in the general election were taken at a time when his opponent was called “Ned Lamont who?” The gap continually narrows as voters learn that Lamont is a serious alternative.
The contest has been framed as a vote on the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, which Lieberman has slavishly defended – more than some of his Republican colleagues, notably Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. And while the war is highly unpopular in Connecticut, that’s not Lieberman’s only rift with his electorate. On social issues, Lieberman plays to a Bible Belt audience, which his voters are not. That would include many of the state’s generally moderate Republicans.
For example, the Republican Majority for Choice is an abortion-rights group with a strong presence in Connecticut. Wonder how its members feel about Lieberman’s opposition to a law requiring all Connecticut hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. Lieberman said the women could just drive to another hospital.
Many still fume over Lieberman’s performance during the Clinton impeachment. In a speech designed to showcase his moral excellence, Lieberman accused the president of setting a bad example for his 10-year-old daughter. That Lieberman had divorced his first wife and broken up his own family had clearly not taught him humility.
Recall the less self-centered response of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The New York Democrat also held Clinton in contempt, but thought that the stability of the presidency was more important than pummeling the guy over a sex scandal. He worked to spare the president’s neck for the good of the country.
People in Connecticut were especially unhappy that the frivolous dance around a blue dress had paralyzed the national government. A Connecticut Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays, understood this and opposed removing the president. While Lieberman looked for love from right-wing radio hosts, Shays bravely withstood their abuse.
When Bush and congressional Republicans played to “the base” by interfering in the Terri Schiavo case, Lieberman grabbed the mike to join them. The stance was wildly unpopular all over America, but especially in Connecticut. The state’s socially moderate Republicans were as appalled as anyone.
Lieberman insists that if he loses the Democratic primary and runs as an independent, he will really be campaigning as an “independent Democrat.” Having it both ways is classic Lieberman. Back at the impeachment, after extending rope to the Clinton lynching party, Lieberman then voted against the charges.
Lamont’s business-minded centrism seems a more comfortable fit for Connecticut than Lieberman’s cultural-conservative politics. Though often called “antiwar,” Lamont actually supported military action in Afghanistan. He disapproves of the Iraq war on the specific grounds that it was done unilaterally and under trumped-up claims.
Likewise, many Connecticut Republicans are old-fashioned internationalists, who fret over America’s damaged standing in the world. Lamont fondly talks of the lost world of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican who helped create the United Nations.
No, Lieberman doesn’t have a lock on the Republican and independent voters of Connecticut. An election, after all, boils down to making a choice. The more people see that they have a reasonable alternative in Lamont – that there’s someone they can vote for, not just against – the worse it will be for Lieberman.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Contact her by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.