Joe Lieberman’s War

Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum

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?

One of Lieberman's many diner stops on the campaign trail.Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum

Lieberman prides himself on being even-tempered, and he’s using every weapon in his emotional arsenal in his struggle to appear unperturbed. Usually he is successful at putting on a good face, but sometimes the façade cracks. He laughed along as DeLauro and a few other friends at the Athenian tried to cheer him up and cheer him on, poking fun at Lamont’s use of the word poppycock in the debate, a term conveying his Wasp-millionaire upbringing. “Lamont’s a pup, momma’s little rich boy,” chimed in one Lieberman friend. But when Susan Voight, the New Haven Democratic chairwoman, brightly complimented the senator on a recent union endorsement, he couldn’t help but think of the endorsements he hasn’t gotten. “There are people who really disappoint you, you trusted them, you thought they were friends,” he said quietly. “Then there are the people who don’t forget you.”

There is an anything-can-happen feeling in Connecticut politics this summer. The state’s voters are reliably blue in presidential contests, but they’re quirky ticket-splitters in local politics. Connecticut has a hugely popular GOP governor, Jodi Rell, two Democratic and three GOP congressmen, and a Democratic majority in the state legislature. Of the state’s nearly 2 million registered voters, the largest proportion are maverick independents (844,000), followed by Democrats (671,000) and Republicans (450,000). Plus the state has never held such a hotly contested primary in the sleepy vacation month of August, and no one in either camp knows how many Democratic voters will bother to come out, much less mail in absentee ballots from Maine or Martha’s Vineyard.

“No public polling can give you a real sense of direction of this race,” says Kenneth Dautrich, professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. “It’s all hypothetical.” Not that no one’s paying attention to the polls: The latest from Quinnipiac University, released July 20, showed Lamont surging into the lead, with a 51 to 47 percent margin among likely Democratic primary voters. Dautrich cautions that the poll is based on a very small sample, but clearly Lamont has momentum on his side.

“For Joe, this is the perfect storm,” says one prominent Connecticut politician. “He’s on the wrong side of most Democrats on the big issue of the day, Iraq. And he’s spent years going around the country making speeches and not coming home. People would have put up with Joe on the war, but they needed to hear him.”

Lamont has taken advantage of such sentiments. His campaign manager, Tom Swan, sent him off to 50 small towns in Connecticut this winter, all the places that hadn’t seen Lieberman in years. It was a smart gambit, and at the Connecticut Democratic Convention in May, Lamont won 33 percent of the vote—he only needed 15 percent to get on the ballot—which gave him instant credibility. He’s since snagged endorsements from the National Organization for Women and the American Federation of Teachers.

Meanwhile, Lieberman is busily trying to make amends, going around the state bragging about the federal largesse he’s brought home, his kosher version of pork. “Joe serves on a major committee, Armed Services, that has a lot to do with the economy of the state,” says Connecticut’s other U.S. senator, Chris Dodd. “You don’t get that kind of seniority overnight. Do we give up all that for someone who would be the 100th senator?”

But it’s hard to rally the masses to support a long-serving politician with unpopular views, whereas insurgent campaigns are fueled by the excitement of going up against the Man. Lamont may be worth up to $300 million, but he’s still managed to come off as the grassroots, anti-Establishment candidate; his offices are full of college-age volunteers working the phones with antiwar zeal. “I see five times more lawn signs for Lamont than Lieberman,” says Scott McLean, chairman of political science at Quinnipiac. “The Lamont supporters are much more motivated to go to the polls.”

That is precisely the scenario that Lieberman fears, and it’s what pushed him to take the step of saying he’ll run as an independent if he loses in the primary. The Quinnipiac poll showed that although he’s endangered in the primary, Lieberman would win a three-way general election, with help from Republicans and independents, getting 51 percent of the total vote, compared with 27 percent for Lamont and 9 percent for the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger.

Lieberman fretted for weeks about the decision to go independent. One adviser tried to talk Lieberman out of it, worried that the ploy might alienate rank-and-file Democrats who would perceive him as dissing his party. But his son and confidant Matt, 36, the headmaster of a Jewish day school in Atlanta, urged him to go for it. “My father’s in a fight,” Matt said, “and he’ll do what he needs to do.”

Ultimately, Lieberman’s hand was forced by the election calendar; petitions to run as an independent have to be filed on August 9, the day after the Democratic primary, and he needs to gather 7,500 signatures—not a one-day job. As Lieberman headed off to make his announcement on July 3 in front of the State House in Hartford, an aide told him, “I don’t know if this will kill us or help us.” Lieberman just smiled in reply. Many years ago, as a teenager waging a successful run for high-school class president, he printed up posters showing him crouched on his parents’ roof with the slogan VOTE OR I’LL JUMP. And so he jumped.

Lieberman thinks of going independent as a pragmatic ploy, not an abandonment of his party. “I’ve been a Democrat for 40 years, I’ll die a Democrat, I’ll probably be a Democrat after my death, I may still be voting Democrat in some cities in Connecticut postmortem,” he jokes. But his action was widely viewed as an astonishing act of hubris, an egotistic declaration that he, Joe Lieberman, was more important than his own party. “Joe bolting the party is a stark admission that things have gone terribly awry in Lieberman land,” says George Jepsen, a former Connecticut Democratic Party chairman who backs Lamont. A Democratic senator from another state said disapprovingly, “Look, you’re part of the Democratic Party or you’re not. Once you move away, you’re making yourself more important than what you’re supposedly doing. Is it more important for the individual to be in the Senate or the ideals and principles you represent?”

Democratic leaders are not just offended by the move, they’re worried about its potential political consequences. The possibility of a three-way race has raised at least the specter of the seat’s falling out of Democratic hands entirely. The current Republican candidate, former Derby mayor Alan Schlesinger, has seen his campaign implode in recent days amid allegations that he has a betting history under a false name, but the GOP is trying to force him off the ballot and recruit a stronger challenger. One name being floated is Jack Orchulli, the former CEO of Michael Kors, who won 34 percent of the vote when he challenged Senator Dodd in 2004. (Orchulli says he’d run again, if asked.) Republican leaders believe that if they can put up a candidate with name recognition and financial backing, the GOP could have a shot in a three-way race, especially with Jodi Rell at the top of the ticket. But Jennifer Duffy, editor of The Cook Political Report, which handicaps races, says the GOP will be hard-pressed to come up with a viable alternative: “There’s no one who can hit the ground running and raise the money to be competitive.”

Even if the Senate seat appears safe for the Democrats, other races could be affected by Lieberman’s decision. Nancy DiNardo, the Connecticut party chair, is concerned that a divisive Senate race is already diverting attention from the three House races in the state, where well-funded Democratic challengers have a real chance of knocking off GOP incumbents. DiNardo has endorsed Lieberman for the primary but says that if Lamont wins, she’ll back him in November. “I know what my role is.”

When I started floating this idea of running, people said, ‘You’re doing what? Who are you?’ ” says Ned Lamont. He’s on the road to Meriden on this late-June day, adding to the thousands of miles he’s put on his gray Ford hybrid SUV since he started this quixotic quest. “The party brass says, ‘Ned, we’ve got to support Lieberman, we’re a club, we stick together.’ ” He seems to delight in these stories about the early days now that he’s upended the race.

Lamont, who contributed to Lieberman’s presidential campaign in 2003, says that it was a series of eureka moments that made him decide to run against him. Event One was turning on Meet the Press in March 2005 and hearing the senator solemnly insist that the government was right to intervene in the fight over removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. Lamont was appalled.

Event Two was Lieberman’s gung ho Iraq-war op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last year, which presented a rosy picture of progress (satellite dishes on the roofs!) and criticized Democrats who focus on how Bush took the country to war rather than being “concerned” about succeeding there. “I called all the political guys I knew in the state and said, ‘One of you guys ought to run,’ ” Lamont recalls. “People told me, ‘It’s impossible. If you feel so strongly, you do it.’ ”

His wife, Annie, was caught off guard when, in late December, “Ned rolled over in bed and told me he was thinking of running.” They stayed up most of the night talking. Annie, who has three children with Ned and is a longtime partner of the venture-capital firm Oak Investment Partners, was worried about the loss of privacy—“Your first reaction is to be ill”—but she gave him her blessing.

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 reallydisappoint you,you trustedthem, youthought they werefriends,”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.”

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.

The senator was looking to shake it off. He needed more people contact. So his driver pulled into a small shopping center nearby. Lieberman spied the Village Wine and Spirit store and walked in, saying, “I’m going back to my roots.”

A customer turned to him and asked, “Is this campaign driving you to drink?” The senator laughed and said, “Yes, but I always stop at liquor stores because of my father.” His father, a Stamford liquor-store owner, died many years ago; Lieberman’s mother passed away last year, and his childhood home was subsequently sold. This marks the year that he can’t go home again, in so many ways.

If Lieberman wins this fall as an independent, he will return to the Senate in a somewhat peculiar position. “The Democrats will almost certainly welcome him back,” says Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, because they need to count him in the caucus. But there will no doubt be an even greater distrust between Lieberman and Democrats who believe he has sold them down the river before. And as Rutgers professor Ross Baker notes, going to the Senate as an independent “would pretty much finish him for national office.”

Lieberman is hoping it doesn’t come to that and is focusing on winning the primary. The good news for him is that Bill Clinton, whom Lieberman was quick to attack after the Lewinsky scandal, has agreed to come to Connecticut this week to try to shore up Lieberman’s Democratic credentials. (Though Hillary won’t support Lieberman as an independent, she’s the one who arranged her husband’s visit after Lieberman cornered her on the Senate floor and asked for her help.) “Clinton is Mr. Democrat, the last great successful national Democratic leader,” says Lieberman with relief. “I think he will be very important to any Democrats who may be troubled by the allegations that Lamont is making.”

Back in the liquor-store parking lot, a well-wisher yelled, “Go get ’em, Joe!” And he called back, “Spread the word.” He was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him. Lieberman was puzzled by the dream. It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving good-bye?

Riding in his blue Grand Marquis to the next event, a press conference overlooking the USS Nautilus submarine, Lieberman turned reflective. “The consequences of defeat are very serious,” he said. “I’m at peace with myself. As long as I feel I’m doing the right thing, I’m okay.” He was referring to the war in Iraq, but he could have just as easily been talking about his own war at home.

Joe Lieberman’s War