SOME TIME AFTER having lunch in Iraq with the junior senator from Connecticut, Time magazine Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware told an interviewer, "Either Sen. Lieberman is so divorced from reality that he's completely lost the plot, or he knows he's spinning a line."
Although Ware was referring specifically to Joe Lieberman's observations about Iraq, his characterization perfectly summarizes the former vice presidential candidate's whole political approach, and it explains why so many Democrats are eager to see him lose in a primary election next month.
Many political observers have tried to paint the candidacy of Lieberman's challenger, Ned Lamont, as merely a referendum on the invasion of Iraq, which Lieberman supported. This newspaper's editorial board declared it "disturbing" that the senator has been "targeted for defeat by national fundraisers based on his foreign policy views." The reason for Lamont's popularity, explained the Washington Post's David Broder, "is simple: the war."
The war is certainly a reason -- and given how events continue to devolve in Iraq, a perfectly sufficient one -- but those who focus only on that miss the broader opposition to Lieberman and the kind of politics he represents.
For too long he has defined his image by distancing himself from other Democrats, cozying up to right-wing media figures and, at key moments, directing his criticisms at members of his own party instead of at the Republicans in power.
Late last year, after President Bush's job approval ratings hit record lows, Lieberman decided to lash out at the administration's critics, writing in the ultraconservative Wall Street Journal editorial pages that "we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." In this he echoed the most toxic of Republican talking points -- that criticizing the conduct of the war is actually damaging to national security.
Lieberman has a long history of providing cover for the worst of Republican actions while enthusiastically serving as his own party's scold. After the Senate acquitted President Clinton on all impeachment charges, Lieberman called for his censure. More recently, he rejected a call by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) to censure Bush over the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, calling the attempt "divisive."
Lieberman looks happiest when playing a "Fox News Democrat," as he did in a February appearance on Sean Hannity's radio program, during which the two exchanged compliments and expressions of friendship and Hannity offered to campaign for him. The senator seems to enjoy Sunday talk shows more than actually doing his job. New Orleans could have been spared the hacktastic performance of Michael Brown, the unqualified former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had Lieberman not shooed him through the confirmation process in a breezy 42-minute hearing.
Lieberman's relationship with the Democratic Party has been one of convenience, not principle, as was proved definitively in late June when he declared his intention to run as an independent if he loses the Aug. 8 primary. Proclaiming that he had loyalties "greater than those to my party," he decided he would deserve a do-over if rejected by Connecticut Democrats. In what could be the final tragic act of his political career, Lieberman might soon discover that Republicans don't love Democrat-bashing Democrats enough to actually vote for them.
Much of the interest in this race is not because of Lamont but rather his perceived base of support from bloggers, including me. One prominent pundit claimed that Lamont's online backers were practitioners of "blogofascism"; another called the campaign an "inquisition." Online political discourse can indeed be caustic and combative, like talk radio. But too many in the Lieberman wing of the party have elevated civility and the illusion of bipartisan comity over challenging Republicans' failed policies. In the process, they have echoed GOP jargon in dismissing critics as "angry" and "hate-filled."
Politics is a contact sport. Those who would paper it over with a veneer of false propriety are pretending it's something that it is not. More than that, loud and raucous debate is a healthy part of our democracy.
Lieberman's problem isn't bloggers, it's the voters of Connecticut, who seem to be increasingly tired of his support for some very uncivil policies, including federal intervention into the Terri Schiavo case, the administration's operations at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and, yes, that disastrous invasion of Iraq.