Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lieberman's Bad Week

The Fix notes that Joe Lieberman has had a bad week. He continues to not rule out a run as an Independent, and his disagreement with the Democratic primary electorate on Iraq was highlighted by the debate on a timetable for withdrawal. The Fix also notes that Lieberman received compliments from Republicans during the debate, while Democrats were absent.

CT Senate: Lieberman, Iraq and the Price of Principle
It's not been a good week for Sen. Joe Lieberman.

On Monday the Connecticut Democrat told reporters that "under no circumstances" would he run as anything other than a Democrat in the state's Aug. 8 primary. But he again refused to rule out running as an independent in the general election should he lose the party's nod to businessman Ned Lamont.

Sen. Lieberman, standing, stumps for votes earlier this month at Carmine's Italian Grill in Bristol, Conn. (AP Photo/The Bristol Press)"If the unexpected happens, do I want to keep open the option of taking my case as an independent Democrat to all the voters of Connecticut so that they can have the last word in November," said Lieberman. "That's a question I haven't decided."

The Fix continues to be baffled by Lieberman's willingness to speak openly about his contemplation of an independent bid at a time when still can make a case to Democratic voters to stick with him. After all, Lamont's entire campaign is based on the idea that Lieberman is not a real Democrat; the more Lieberman waffles, the more rhetorical ammunition he provides to Lamont's insurgent campaign.

Speaking of rhetorical ammunition, the Hartford Courant notes that Lieberman became the first Democrat to announce his plans to oppose both Iraq war amendments being offered in the Senate today. (Sens. John Kerry and Russ Feingold have put forward a binding proposal to withdraw all American troops by July 31, 2007; Sens. Carl Levin and Jack Reed are offering a non-binding resolution that urges America "begin the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq this year.")

As the Courant's David Lightman writes, not one Democratic colleague was in the chamber for Lieberman's speech. He was introduced by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) -- perhaps the top target of Democrats in this year's elections -- praised Lieberman's remarks as "incredibly articulate."

It's telling that not a single Democrat stood by Lieberman, especially since his colleagues have largely lined up behind him in recent weeks. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) recently predicted that Lieberman would win the Senate primary in Connecticut, saying that a competitive gubernatorial primary in the state would turn out "a lot of mainstream Democrats" who would also vote for Lieberman

Even Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), one of the most outspoken critics of the war in Iraq, told reporters at the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas that she backs Lieberman. "This is an election on whether the war is the only issue," Boxer said, adding: "I disagree with [Lieberman] on the war and he knows it."

The Connecticut political establishment has been less willing to unite behind Lieberman. Former state party chairman George Jepsen endorsed Lamont, and two teachers unions -- the Connecticut branch of the American Federation of Teachers and the Connecticut Education Association -- are also with Lamont. (Neither group has endorsed Lieberman in his three past Senate campaigns.)

Former Sen. Lowell Weicker -- a Republican-turned-independent -- has also put his support behind Lamont, a move that the Lieberman camp immediately sought to exploit with a Web ad that hearkens back to the Lieberman vs. Weicker campaign in 1988, in which Lieberman depicted his opponent as a sleeping bear.

"Remember Lowell Weicker?" asks the ad's narrator. "Well, bears never forget. He's never gotten over losing his Senate race to Joe Lieberman. But instead of coming out of hibernation, he's sent his bear cub instead. Ned Lamont."

Lieberman's attempt to link Lamont to Weicker is a sound strategy. Since leaving the governor's office in 1994, Weicker's public image has fallen significantly. Independent polling has repeatedly shown Weicker is viewed unfavorably by most of the state's voters. He flirted with challenging Lieberman earlier this year but backed off.

The events of this week point to the fundamental challenge before Lieberman. He has made his political name on being a principled leader who follows his beliefs and isn't swayed by the political winds. Typically, voters have swallowed their doubts about any one of Lieberman's positions, believing that on most issues he was with them. The war in Iraq has severely damaged that trust, and now that Lieberman has cast himself as a man of principle he cannot switch positions on the war without severe political consequences.

Lieberman's plans to vote against both of the Iraq war resolutions today seem to be a recognition that he has chosen his course and must stick to it whatever the fallout. It's a choice that has the potential to cost him his party's nomination this year, if not his political career overall.

I think Cillizza is a little off here; if Lieberman wants to preserve the option to run as an Independent - and he will have to announce it before the Democratic primary takes place - what else can he do, but leave it on the table? Nevertheless, this again serves to highlight how difficult it will be for Lieberman to remain a Democrat.

If Lieberman ultimately runs as an Independent, defeats Lamont, and tries to return to DC as an Independent who supports the Democrats, will he ever be able to go into a local Democratic club again? It sure looks like the Kos/MoveOn crowd intends to make it unbearable for him. They are livid that Lieberman won't rule out an Independent bid, and the level of bile is rising every day. Will Lieberman want to bury the hatchet with that group, when he runs into them on a daily basis in Connecticut?

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