Wayne O'Leary

Spoiler Joe

Joe Lieberman, Connecticut's lame-duck senator, has finally come out of the closet in the wake of his stunning primary loss; he's a Bush Republican after all. His Democratic credentials have been suspect for some time, since at least 1988, when he savaged liberal Republican Lowell Weicker and took Weicker's Senate seat by adopting a Reaganite posture on the issues and campaigning from the right. They've been even more suspect since the late 1990s, when he became the nation's moralizer-in-chief, leading the conservative holier-than-thou chorus that condemned President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair.

Ironically, Lieberman's Clinton critique won him his party's vice presidential nod in 2000, a year when Democrats felt they needed a moral avatar on the ticket. But his lackluster campaign and subsequent dissing of running mate Al Gore's political populism relegated the Connecticut senator to Democratic backbench status. Only his bipartisan embrace of the Bush foreign policy and his prominence in the Senate's centrist "Gang of 14" kept Lieberman's name in the headlines. So, it came as no real surprise that he eventually went completely over to the dark side and made more or less official what knowledgeable political observers knew all along: The senator's a GOP fellow traveler.

Lieberman's transition from the Democratic party to what he calls "the party of Connecticut" was underway well before the conclusion of August's primary contest with the eventual Democratic Senate nominee, Ned Lamont. The three-term incumbent, down in the polls throughout the summer, began collecting signatures to run as a third-party independent during the actual primary campaign itself, even while still labeling himself a Democrat. This Lieberman habit of taking care of Joe first is not new. In 2000, he ran for reelection to the Senate and for the vice presidency simultaneously, hedging his bets in case the Gore-Lieberman ticket lost. The contrast with John Edwards, who resigned his South Carolina Senate seat to focus totally on a presidential run in 2004, is instructive.

The very day after Lamont's victory, Lieberman hit the ground running, bidding his old party adieu, dismissing key Democratic advisors and offering himself as the center-right alternative in the fall's general election. This, remember, was the candidate who had the near-unanimous backing of the Democratic establishment during his primary run. Yet, he refused to accept the verdict of his party's rank and file (which preferred Lamont by a solid, if not overwhelming, margin) and, in effect, wrote off his years with the political organization that had nurtured him and nearly put him in the vice president's chair. Loyalty is not a bedrock Lieberman virtue.

The erstwhile Democratic senator, who immediately demonized primary victor Lamont as a radical, overly partisan and naïve McGovernite who would sell out America's security, ludicrously claimed the high road in what is shaping up as a nasty spoiler campaign for November; he was a patriot, he implied, while the official Democratic nominee's opposition to the Iraq war made him downright dangerous. At least Lieberman didn't go as far as his new friend Dick Cheney, who characterized the Lamont win as a victory for al Qaeda.

Cheney is not the only hard-right Republican suddenly warming to the defeated incumbent senator. Lieberman's election-night commiseration included a call from Karl Rove, the GOP's Svengali, and compliments from RNC Chairman Ken Mehiman. In addition, unconfirmed rumors have it that the president also gave the dethroned war hawk a figurative hug of sympathy to go with "the kiss." Lieberman's longtime status as George W.'s favorite Democrat has been further validated by apparent GOP moves to ease away from the official but hapless Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, and quietly throw the party's support in Connecticut to the newly minted independent Lieberman, in order to stop the antiwar Lamont. Lieberman, for his part, has geared his fall effort to winning the votes of Republicans to complement his minority primary coalition of conservative independents and mossback Democrats.

The general election in the Nutmeg State will be another referendum on Iraq, this time with the entire electorate involved, but there will be other questions up for discussion as well.

Lieberman has not only been his former party's leading hawk on the war, he's been a leading force in undercutting Democratic efforts to create a united front against the Bush administration on a wide range of issues. The Nation's John Nichols cites his willingness to consider Social Security privatization and to intercede in the Tern Schiavo case, his advocacy of free trade and corporate welfare, and his backing of Republican efforts to block a filibuster of conservative Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Others point to his fondness for "faith-based" social initiatives and support for conservative-led tort reform. Altogether, it's not a pretty picture.

What comes across most clearly in the Connecticut contest is the antipathy felt by Lieberman and his supporters toward the Lamont camp; they obviously dislike the Democratic party's liberal or progressive wing far more than they dislike the Bush Republicans.

It's odd in the extreme that the Democratic left is, in Lieberman parlance, extreme and partisan, whereas the Republican right is not. This suggests that despite his carefully cultivated moderate image, Al Gore's old running mate is more conservative than centrist. At any rate, he's decided that Ned Lamont must be destroyed at all costs, and one of the costs (if the Connecticut fissures widen and extend beyond the borders of the Nutmeg State) could be a nationally disunited Democratic party and a lost opportunity to seize Congress.

Spoiler Joe either doesn't appreciate the potential damage done by his maverick independent candidacy to the party in which he spent his career, or (as increasingly seems to be the case) he doesn't care. Entreaties from a raft of national Democratic leaders that he accept the decision of the primary voters and step aside have so far fallen on deaf ears. If there's any redeeming feature at all in this potentially disastrous scenario, it's that Lieberman is up against someone who knows what he believes and won't back down. Unlike his opponent, Ned Lamont appears to be the real thing: a true Democrat with a fighting heart and a progressive soul. He'll need it all against the cynical Connecticut spoiler.


Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.