"I believe it was the right thing for us to overthrow Saddam Hussein," said Senator Joe Lieberman last night, explaining his support for the Iraq War during the heated primary debate with Ned Lamont. Lieberman's stubborn defense sounded eerily similar to another unpopular politician under pressure for the war. Last night President Bush assured Larry King "the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision."
Lieberman actually channeled Bush throughout the debate. He echoed the White House spin on Iraq, arguing the only "choice is between helping the Iraqis achieve a free and independent Iraq or abandoning them and letting the terrorists take over." He trotted out baseless flip-flop charges, accusing Lamont of taking five different positions on the war. And when all else failed, Lieberman deployed the classic Bush-Rove tactic: project your own weakness on to your opponent. So he accused Lamont of the top grievances voters have against Lieberman: voting too often with Republicans, acting out of touch and prioritizing power over principle. (He claimed Lamont's war position only changed when he decided there was an "opportunity to become a United States senator").
It got so fierce, MSNBC's Tom Curry noted that Lieberman was "super-aggressive and sometimes rude," a stark contrast from his mild debate with Dick Cheney in 2000. Several bloggers observed that Liebeman seemed angry and contemptuous at even having to converse with a challenger. Last night I raised these points with Sean Smith, Lieberman's campaign manager, and this was his reply:
"Laughable. This is always what the supporters of losing candidates claim. Lieberman was aggressive and on the offensive. After months of distorting our record and hiding from his own, Lamont finally had to own up to both - and he failed."
Yet Reuters tells a different story, reporting that Lamont delivered a "hammering" against Lieberman that put him "on the defensive for much of the debate." The Washington Post also noticed some banging; today's front page article reports that "Lamont has relentlessly hammered Lieberman as a rubber stamp for the president's war policies." And Lamont made his case clearly last night: "President Bush rushed us into this war. He told us it would be easy, we'd be welcomed as liberators, that [we would find] weapons of mass destruction. And Senator Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way."
Lieberman can keep cheering and channeling Bush, but the hammering will continue. And as luck would have it, Bush is no longer cheering (or kissing) back. Last night, when Larry King pressed him on whether he supports Lieberman, Bush said he would not give Lieberman "a political kiss, which could be his death." But as Connecticut voters know, that kiss was already planted a long time ago.