Joe Lieberman Gets Angry

The Iraq War has ended thousands of Americans' lives, but it has not ended the political lives of any of the hawkish leaders who rushed the country to war. At least not yet.

Reuters is reporting that the war's "first big political casualty" may come in August, when Connecticut Democrats have the option to reject pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman. The alternative is Ned Lamont, a successful, low-key businessman who spent the spring puncturing the shell of Lieberman's seemingly high approval ratings, exposing simmering discontent with the three-term Senator. Political insiders started taking Lamont seriously when he beat expectations at the state convention last month, and many reporters are covering the race as a Democratic referendum on Iraq.

The nation's leading newspapers have cast the Lieberman challenge as a product of the anti-war movement, and that is definitely part of the story. His war record is unlike any other Democrat: Lieberman sponsored the original war resolution with Senators Warner, McCain and Bayh; he relentlessly repeats White House talking points - from rosy depictions of progress to attacks on war critics - and generally avoids criticizing President Bush when the cameras are rolling. Lieberman's campaign manager, Sean Smith, told me that Lieberman has been "extremely critical of the execution" of the war, but it is hard to find major examples in the news over the past few years. If Lieberman does lose the primary, his stubborn support for the war will be a central factor. But the war alone would probably not be sufficient to topple this once popular incumbent.

Lieberman is under heavy fire from the voters who know him best precisely because his promotion of Republican foreign policy is not an exception to his record. Lieberman frequently helps Republicans when it matters most: In the high-profile media appearances that frame national debates and on close votes and Congressional negotiations. In this weekend's Hartford Courant, Paul Bass lists enough examples of such behavior to rile up even the most conservative, nonpartisan Democrats. What other Senators can say they helped both Bush Administrations confirm controversial Supreme Court nominees without actually voting for them? (See Bass' column for the whole story.) From Social Security to domestic spying and Homeland Security to filibuster compromises, Lieberman is ready to peddle Republican talking points and cut a deal. He usually votes the Democratic Party line on the Senate floor, of course, but often the most consequential action happens before the votes and off the floor. That was the case in 2002, when Lieberman allowed President Bush to steal his proposal for a homeland security department right before the midterm elections. (I detail the entire episode in this March op-ed.)

So what is the Lieberman Campaign's answer to these fundamental questions about the Senator's war record and overall conduct in office?

The message is basically that the Senator is listening to war critics but sticking to his guns; he is "as angry and frustrated" as the voters; and he will keep up the good fight as a "proud Democrat" for his state. These were the recurring themes when I talked to Campaign Manager Sean Smith recently. "Our main message is that Senator Lieberman understands the anger and frustrations and the concerns about the way things are going. The Republican President and Congress have the country headed in the wrong direction, and Senator Lieberman is as angry and as frustrated as Connecticut voters are. The premise of our campaign is let's not just protest, let's not just be angry - let's channel that into positive results," he said, adding that the voters he talks with know that the Senator has "been in the arena fighting for them." Smith returned to anger when asked about Lieberman's infamous warning last December that war critics "undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." Emphasizing that Lieberman regretted leaving an "impression that dissent was not a good thing," Smith said the Senator "aligns himself with the frustrations and anger of voters who have lost confidence in the trustworthiness of the administration."

The most obvious problem with this message is practical: It is hard to coopt anger that it is directed squarely at you. When Connecticut voters say they are angry at how President Bush and Congress are leading the country, Lieberman is part of the target. People know he is one of Bush's greatest allies in Congress.

The other problem is substantive: What exactly is Lieberman so angry about? He looks content discussing his hawkish views on TV. He is comfortable cutting deals with the Bush Administration. No one can read his mind, but he appears to enjoy the extra attention he receives as Bush's favorite Democrat - from that memorable kiss to the administration's more somber plaudits for his leadership. He relishes presiding over bipartisan theatrics in Congress, including the filibuster compromise that may soon fall apart. He displayed enthusiastic body language when he was the first member of Congress to stand and applaud one of Bush's statements during the State of the Union - an image that has been circulating on the Internet ever since.

Joe SOTU 2.jpg

In fact, it is hard to recall the last time Lieberman gave an "angry" speech denouncing President Bush and backed it up with action in Congress. And as many observers have noted, the righteous fury that Lieberman publicly unleashed on President Clinton for his affair has never been deployed against any of President Bush's scandals. Not Katrina. Not Abu Ghraib. Not Plame. Not Ambramoff. Not smearing veterans like John Murtha and John Kerry. And definitely not WMDs. If this is the angry Joe Lieberman, Connecticut cannot afford for him to ever calm down.

UPDATE: Scarce, a Lieberman critic and videoblogger, has assembled some of the most famous Bush embraces in a short video on YouTube. Scarce says he works with a group of "Nedheads" who have been chronicling Ned Lamont's race since its inception on an unofficial site called The Ned Lamont Resource.