Establishment Democrats like John Kerry and Connecticut’s own Chris Dodd, in keeping with the protocol and eager to score easy antiwar points, went on to back Lamont. (One Democratic senator who declined to endorse Lamont was Barack Obama, whose antiwar cred did not need polishing. Already one of the most popular faces on the Hill and a likely 2008 contender, Obama ended up making a series of high-profile appearances on Lieberman’s behalf during the primary.) Lieberman, of course, won the general election and, ironically, wound up holding the key to the Democrats’ Senate majority. The party was forced to forgive him, to an extent, but the embittered Lieberman had no reason to return the favor. In fact, his “decision to go indie came before the primary,” insists an insider. “Joe knew what he was going to do long before it became public. There were back-channel talks between Lamont and Dodd, Lamont and Kerry before the primary. Imagine, to have your friend John Kerry fly into Connecticut and campaign against you. To have your friend Chris Dodd film a TV ad against you. These are the people you have lunch with every Tuesday.” In other words, Lamont’s primary victory was not the cause of the final break between Lieberman and the Democratic Party. It was its consummation.
"Look, none of the Democratic candidates asked me for my support,” says Lieberman with a smile when I ask how he was approached by the McCain campaign. “John McCain called a week after Thanksgiving and said, ‘I don’t want to get you into more trouble with the Democrats than you’re already in, but would you consider endorsing me in New Hampshire?’ ” Lieberman recalls. “The media were asking whom I’d support, and I was in my wonderful status as an independent … ” He trails off dreamily, making it sound as if the endorsement just slipped out.
The real reason he’s backing McCain, Lieberman says, is because he believes in the kind of foreign policy that the Democrats don’t provide anymore: unflinching on Iraq, Iran, and Russia, and unfailingly loyal to Israel (he invokes Nixon’s line about “loading every plane” with weapons for Israel to explain what kind of president McCain will be). Lieberman believes foreign policy is the defining issue of the day, and sees Obama’s nomination as the regrettable result of a knee-jerk, blog-fueled peacenik mentality among the Democrats. “Last year, at the DailyKos convention, just about all of the candidates came, and the Democratic Leadership Council held a convention and none came,” he says. In July, following an online outcry, Lieberman notes, Obama called a second press conference in one day to clarify his position on Iraq troop withdrawal.
Lieberman’s rhetoric has been getting sharper-edged. His attacks on Obama, says Joe Trippi, “have gone way off the reservation.”
Lieberman sees this zigzag as evidence that Obama takes his marching orders from the blogs. “In 2007,” he tells me, “netroots and MoveOn.org controlled the agenda—they endorsed Obama like they endorsed Ned Lamont, and did to Hillary what they did to me in 2006.” Lieberman, who often brings up Lamont without provocation, seems to view the McCain-Obama matchup as his battle with Lamont writ large on the national canvas: a voice-of-reason maverick beholden to no one but his conscience pitted against a cocky line-cutter with no experience. “The lesson Joe learned about the netroots,” says a onetime colleague, “is now the frame he will put around any situation, even when it doesn’t apply.” An even less charitable view of Lieberman’s embrace of McCain holds that it’s all about payback for the way the Democrats treated him in the ’04 election and in Connecticut. “If you’re a nail, the whole world looks like a hammer,” says the same ex-colleague. “He was hurt, and to an extent, he is still working through it.”
Lieberman’s collaboration with the McCain campaign is informal but intense. He says he doesn’t normally receive note-by-note instructions, but he goes on talk shows, gives speeches, hosts fund-raisers, and travels extensively. “I give the McCain campaign days when I don’t have Senate,” he says. “Sundays and Mondays. I’m very pleased they’re going to use me at all.”
Lieberman’s allegiance switch plays nicely into the current popular outcry for bi-partisanship while undercutting Obama’s claim to the same. At the same time, his deep and hawkish foreign-policy record squares effectively with McCain’s strategy to position Obama as weak and inexperienced in foreign affairs. Lieberman recently toured Latin America and the Middle East with McCain, and when the bloody skirmish in Georgia aroused the ghosts of the Cold War, McCain sent Lieberman there as his emissary. The high-profile dispatch (the intended message seemed to be that McCain is already running a shadow Cabinet with an extra-tough-on-Russia stance) conveniently coincided with a rash of reports that Lieberman was being vetted for the vice-presidential slot.