Lieberman says Bush was simply saying, “Thank you for being a patriotic American,” in response to Lieberman’s willingness to stand up in support of Bush’s comments about the war while his Democratic colleagues stayed glued to their seats. “It’s a silly business in that session, so childish: One side stands, the other doesn’t,” Lieberman says. In any case, “I don’t think he kissed me.” The truth of his relationship with Bush, Lieberman says, is that “we’re not close. I’m the only person who ran against him once and tried to run against him a second time.” He adds, “But I happen to share similar goals in Iraq. My opponent says that somehow, having done this, I’m not a good Democrat.”
Lieberman is quick to turn that accusation around. “Look, talk about who is a good Democrat or who is a bad Democrat. By running his campaign on this single issue, he has taken the safest Democratic Senate seat and put it somewhat in jeopardy,” he says disingenuously. “And he has taken three Democratic House challengers, each of whom has a chance to get elected, and by putting me in a position that I may not be on the Democratic line, has made it harder for them to get elected.”
This idea of good and bad Democrats resonates with Lieberman. In his mind, he is not just fighting for reelection but for the soul and the future of the party—and therefore the fight must be won at any cost. “What kind of Democratic Party are we going to have?” he asks. “You’ve got to agree 100 percent, or you’re not a good Democrat?” In his view, Lamont is not suitable for office not just because he has no experience on the Hill, but also because he’s a polarizing figure who will push the Democrats further into the margins. “Unless the party has room for people like me,” continues Lieberman, “unless the party begins to redeem some public confidence on issues of national security, we’re not going to elect a Democratic president or Congress ahead.”
Then again, public confidence on issues of national security is exactly what the Bush administration and Lieberman seem to be losing. Many other Democrats supported the Iraq war, but because he has not recanted, Lieberman has become Enemy No. 1 to the antiwar movement. Lieberman’s inner circle smells a whiff of anti-Semitism in the antiwar camp. “There’s a fringe that thinks Bush went to Iraq for oil, and Lieberman went into Iraq for Israel,” says Dan Gerstein, a former communications director to Lieberman. But the majority of Lieberman’s opponents are simply disappointed that the senator continues to support what they see as the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign policy.
Lieberman says the absence of weapons of mass destruction has not changed his feelings about the rightness of the U.S. invasion. “Saddam was a mass murderer, he invaded two neighboring countries, he supported terrorists, he had a plan to dominate the Middle East and control oil prices. We are better off with Saddam gone,” he says, noting that he also backed the American march to Baghdad in 1991 in response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. “I supported the overthrow of Saddam before George Bush was president.” Although he has criticized Bush for going in without enough troops and botching the reconstruction, he refuses to side with his Democratic colleagues on an immediate exit timetable. “You’ve got to begin to withdraw when you’ve achieved the goals for the mission or you decide the mission is hopeless. I certainly don’t think the mission is hopeless,” he says. Despite the daily reports of bloodshed, Lieberman insists that he sees progress, that Iraq now has a genuine government and Iraqi forces are better trained to take over, though he concedes that “the sectarian violence has been a setback. War is hell.”
As Lieberman speaks, he periodically checks his watch, aware that he has a task ahead of him that will further rile his antiwar opponents. That afternoon, the Senate would be debating two Democratic amendments to set a timetable to pull out of Iraq, and he would be speaking against them, on Republican time ceded to him by John Warner of Virginia. Doesn’t he worry that this will give Lamont even more ammunition? “If I was going to play politics with the war in Iraq,” he says with a rueful laugh, “I would have started to do it a long time ago.”
On an overcast day late in June, Lieberman was battling it out on the hustings again. A visit to a senior center in East Lyme turned rancorous when a Vietnam veteran began screaming at him over Iraq. “We’ve got Saddam, now let’s get out,” the vet said. Afterward, Lieberman’s driver sped away as if leaving the scene of a crime.