Joe Lieberman walked into the Athenian Diner looking worn-out but wired. He’d been up late the night before, unable to unwind after his acrimonious televised debate with Senate challenger Ned Lamont. Over a bottle of red wine and warmed-up pizza, he and his wife, Hadassah, had sat at their kitchen table and dissected the evening. She had praised his jabbing attacks, “glad he let it out” and vented his frustrations. But today’s newspaper stories described Lieberman as “combative” and “aggressive” and a man acting like he was “fighting for his political life.” And in the morning light, the senator regretted that he had not shown a lighter touch. “I had hoped to have the opportunity to be funny and laugh a little more,” he said, “but it wasn’t that kind of night.”
It hasn’t been that kind of campaign. Nothing is working out as Lieberman expected. Although he’d assumed that, because of his support for the Iraq war, he’d face some opposition for reelection, he was unprepared for the backlash of anger against him and the groundswell of support for Lamont, a cable-TV mogul and political novice who has surged ahead in the polls thanks to his get-out-of-Iraq stance. The shoot-out in Connecticut has turned into a national political event—a referendum on the war and a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, one that may put a safe Democratic Senate seat at risk and have implications for other nonconformist Democrats around the country. In this topsy-turvy race, Lamont, a wealthy great-grandson of J. P. Morgan’s business partner, has somehow seized the mantle as the “real” Democrat. Meanwhile, Lieberman is being heckled at campaign stops (“It’s getting scary,” one aide says. “They’re so angry”) and excoriated in the blogosphere, from state sites like My Left Nutmeg to the leading national Democratic outlet, Daily Kos, where Markos Moulitsas Zúniga posted after the debate, “For Lieberman it’s all about power, and he’ll be as vicious, as rude, as boorish and dishonest as he needs to be to cling to it.”
This kind of reception is an astonishing turnaround for a man whose selection as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 was seen as brilliant political strategy. Lieberman caught the public’s fancy back then as a social progressive who believed in a muscular foreign policy and a moralist who could help distance Gore from Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal. But now, as the body count mounts in Iraq, he has been recast as a villain, Bush’s lackey and partner in crime.
Gore, who did not back Lieberman’s 2004 presidential bid, has declined to lend a helping hand to his flailing former running mate. (“I did not ask for his support, and I don’t think it has much effect here,” Lieberman acidly pointed out.) And more former allies have headed for the hills since Lieberman, in a striking admission of the weakness of his position, announced in early July that if he loses the August 8 Democratic Senate primary, he’ll run in November as an independent. Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, all potential 2008 presidential contenders, raced to distance themselves from Lieberman, promising to back the winner of the primary, whomever that may be.
Lieberman has spent virtually his entire life in public office since graduating from Yale Law School, and at 64, he does not want to go quietly into retirement. Every friend who deserts him, every taunt yelled at a parade—he takes it personally. “It wears on him,” says his friend Al From, chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “My father is not the personification of evil,” says his daughter Rebecca, who had initially scheduled her upcoming wedding for two days before the primary but pushed it back a week out of concern for her father’s campaign. “This is incredible.”
As Lieberman put it at a recent fund-raiser, “My tuchis is on the line.”
So here he was on the day after the debate, working his way around the Athenian Diner, cup of coffee in hand. Lieberman sat down across from Ollie Lawrence Jr., an African-American health-care consultant, and asked, “What kind of message do you want to send to Washington?” The two men earnestly discussed health-care costs. But once the senator moved on, Lawrence confided that although he had donated thousands of dollars to the senator’s campaigns in the past, he might not vote for him in the primary. “I don’t know if Iraq is enough to push me away from him, but staying the course doesn’t feel good,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got thousands of soldiers dying. That’s Bush’s doing, and Lieberman has taken a strong position with him.”
The diner’s door opened, and Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic congresswoman, rushed in. She and Lieberman embraced, surprised and pleased to see one another. DeLauro has endorsed Lieberman in the primary. But now, like every other local Democratic official, she finds herself in a tough spot, forced to choose between party loyalty and friendship. She nervously dodged a question about whether she’ll support Lieberman as an independent, saying, “I’m not going to speculate on the future.” Et tu, Rosa?