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Joe Lieberman’s War

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Lamont had dabbled in politics before, serving as a Greenwich selectman in the early nineties, running a failed race for state representative, raising money for Bill Bradley and Bill Clinton, but most of his energy was spent running the privately held company he founded in 1984, Lamont Digital Systems. He’s well aware that the biggest rap against him is that he’s a newcomer to the game who doesn’t know his way around the issues. As Lieberman loyalist and former Democratic Party chair John Droney says dismissively, “He’s a well-intentioned rich fool. Just because his great-granddaddy made a lot of money and he went to Exeter and Harvard, suddenly he wants to sit on the Armed Services Committee?”

Lamont can come across as a bit naïve: Asked what he hopes to accomplish in Washington beyond bringing troops home from Iraq, he enthuses, “If I could be on one committee that makes a difference, it would be education. There are too many good jobs leaving the country.” But he says he’s doing his homework, consulting with former Reagan Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, a host of analysts at the Brookings Institution, and even failed Democratic presidential contender Mike Dukakis. “I’m trying to expand my reach the best I can,” he says. “Let’s face it, the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C., is not setting me up with briefing papers.” Korb, now at a left-leaning think tank, the Center for American Progress, believes Lamont is up to the job. “Ned’s a very quick study, he asks a lot of probing questions.” And Korb can’t resist adding that he briefed Lieberman on defense, too, shortly after the senator was elected eighteen years ago. “The first time I went to see Senator Lieberman, he wasn’t up to speed on weapons issues.”

Lamont may not have experience, but his earnest attacks on Lieberman have scored. In one of his few zingers in the televised debate, he effectively countered Lieberman’s charge that as a Greenwich selectman Lamont often voted with Republicans: “It was questions about potholes and stop signs. You’re compromising on questions of principles and things that are the key to the Democratic Party.” Lamont has widened his attacks to portray Lieberman as too willing to compromise with the Republicans on everything, from supporting school vouchers to voting for the Cheney energy bill. His rallying cry: “You’re not losing a senator, you’re gaining a Democrat.”

But in the end, this election may not be about Lamont at all. In the Quinnipiac poll, 63 percent of those who planned to vote for him said their motivation was to oust Lieberman. “Joe’s kicked sand in the face of Democrats, and I think Ned will win the primary,” says Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, the grassroots group founded by his brother Howard. But Dean, who supports Lamont, worries that an August win could prove a Pyrrhic victory. “They can have their protest vote in August, and then take their time to think about what they really want to do in November.”

“There are people who really disappoint you, you trusted them, you thought they were friends,” Lieberman said quietly. “Then there are the people who don’t forget you.”

“I am a Democrat, and I believe I’m in the best tradition of the Democratic Party,” says Lieberman, sitting in his hushed office in the Hart Building in Washington just days before he dropped the independent bombshell. “I don’t want to yield the party to people that I don’t think will take it forward to victory, that I don’t think represent its best values.”

Lieberman is becoming a veteran at defending his right to be a member of the Democratic Party, and he repeatedly cites a Congressional Quarterly study showing that he votes with his colleagues 90 percent of the time. He opposed the Bush tax cuts, voted against the flag-burning amendment, and points out that while the Democratic Party is enthusiastically backing anti-abortion advocate Bob Casey for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat, he’s pro-choice. But he admits that he doesn’t hesitate to “work with like-minded Republicans on issues where we are like-minded.” And his Democratic Senate colleagues grumble that he’s often too quick to cut deals and undermine party strategy. As one long-serving senator from another state puts it, “There’s a feeling that Joe has gone out of his way to stick his finger in the eyes of Democrats.”

What’s fanned the flames of this party alienation is Lieberman’s perceived closeness to the president. The photo of George Bush embracing the senator and kissing him on the cheek after the January 2005 State of the Union address has caused Lieberman endless grief. Lamont’s supporters have created buttons featuring the kiss with the caption TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT. “Bush’s idiotic embrace of Lieberman has given a distorted picture of their relationship,” says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a longtime friend of the senator. “A kiss is just a kiss, but this was not a politically astute move.”


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