West Hartford, Conn. The challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Aug. 8 Connecticut Democratic primary from anti-Iraq War millionaire Ned Lamont is the summertime drama gripping the entire party.
From what I saw last week, this fight is a complete mismatch. The party regulars supporting Lieberman have a candidate. The rebels backing Lamont have a cause. And I came away convinced that the people with the cause likely will win - at least this first round.
One night last week, the party establishment, led by former President Bill Clinton and Connecticut's other Democratic senator, Chris Dodd, whipped up an orchestrated show of enthusiasm for the three-term incumbent, whose support of the Iraq War and friendship with President Bush have put his nomination in jeopardy. But none of them - including Lieberman - made any effort to deal with what Clinton called "the pink elephant in the room," the massive public revulsion in this state for Bush's war in Iraq.
Ignoring the issue won't work. Perhaps for some voters, Lieberman's three decades of constituent service - the jobs he's saved, the grants and contracts he's helped secure - entitle him to another term. But how many of them will be motivated enough by gratitude to vote in a mid-summer primary is uncertain. Lieberman has put out a call to friends in Washington to bolster his lagging get-out-the-vote effort, but he has little time to catch up.
For many Connecticut Democrats, the overriding motive is to send a message against the war, against the Bush administration, against Washington - everything that Lieberman represents to them. On the night after the Clinton-Lieberman rally in Waterbury's Palace Theater, I came here to meet with some of these voters among the 200 people attending a wine and cheese fundraiser with Lamont and his wife, sponsored by a coalition of feminist organizations.
One of the women, Karen Schuessler of Ridgefield, told me she had bought an expensive ticket to a Lieberman fundraiser last December, so she could tell him directly how much she opposed the war. "He told me, 'Things are looking better over there. They're voting. They have a constitution.' I thought, What a moron! The next month, I went to the first dump-Lieberman meeting."
Almost all the people I met had worked for Lieberman or voted for him in the past. For some, breaking ranks is hard. State Rep. Denise Merrill of Storrs, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said she regards Lieberman as a mentor and "I feel a terrible tug" in working to defeat him. Her leaders in the Legislature are angry with her. But, she said, "I know as a legislator, there's sometimes a conflict between your personal convictions and the strong wishes of your constituents. Joe thinks he is sticking to his convictions on the war. But on an issue important as this, you have to respect what your constituents are saying. You can't ignore them."
People like Merrill have had their consciences eased by Lieberman's announcement that if he loses the primary to Lamont, he will run in November as an independent - an act they regard as selfish. But Lieberman says that he can win as an independent and still caucus next January with Senate Democrats. Early polls show him ahead. But no one knows how a three-way race would evolve; there is talk of Republicans substituting someone of stature for their current weak nominee, Alan Schlesinger. A Democratic seat could be in jeopardy.
The people backing Lamont are nothing if not sincere. But their breed of Democrats - many of them wealthy, educated, extremely liberal - often pick candidates who are rejected by the broader public. Many of the older Lamont supporters went straight from Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern in the 1960s and 1970s to Howard Dean in 2004. They helped Joe Duffey challenge Sen. Tom Dodd in Connecticut for the 1970 Democratic nomination on the Vietnam War issue, only to see Duffey lose to Republican Lowell Weicker in November. Lamont's campaign manager, Tom Swan, is also the director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG), a populist organization founded in the 1970s by Toby Moffett, a Ralph Nader protege and anti-Vietnam activist who was one of the "Watergate babies" elected to the House in 1974. Moffett's political career also was ended by a loss to Weicker, who stayed in the Senate until Lieberman finally beat him in 1988.
Democrats everywhere are looking to Connecticut for clues about the party's direction. The primary will probably point them leftward, toward a stronger anti-war stand. But often in the past, the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in. That is why this contest is so consequential for the Democratic Party.