Joe Lieberman was incensed.
He’d just been confronted at a campaign event for Irish supporters in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., by a woman who lectured him about his lack of commitment to the Democratic Party.
“She was a plant,” said Mr. Lieberman, complaining to two campaign staffers in the parking lot behind the Irish Tigín Pub. “It was a set-up.”
This, writ small, is what has become of Mr. Lieberman’s political career.
The most prominent orthodox Jewish politician in American political history, Mr. Lieberman is attempting to survive a chaotic primary fight that has consequences far beyond the leafy borders of Connecticut, with opponents across the country calling him a traitor to his party and supporters returning fire with charges of liberal self-destructiveness and anti-Semitism.
While the Aug. 8 election promises to be a referendum on his support of President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, it also speaks to the heart of some basic questions about the Democratic Party and the American electorate.
Is it still viable to run as a foreign-policy hawk, a pro-environment civil libertarian, a self-declared “noodge” to immoral Hollywood and a socially moderate Zionist?
Mr. Lieberman, at least, thinks so.
“I am a Democrat in the mold of Truman, Kennedy, Humphrey,” Mr. Lieberman told The Observer just after the event. “I continue to be socially progressive here at home, and I believe you have to put muscle behind your ideals in foreign policy.”
Asked specifically if he felt that the wave of opposition to his candidacy had anything to do with his religion or his support for Israel, Mr. Lieberman paused, stepped toward the blue sedan that would speed him to a meeting outside of Hartford and said, “That’s too big a question to answer on one foot. We should come back to answer that one.”
What is happening to Mr. Lieberman, at the least, indicates that the political environment in Connecticut—and elsewhere—has changed drastically.
After twice being re-elected to his seat by an average margin of more than 30 percent, he is now in real danger of losing in a primary contest to Ned Lamont, an anti-war, blogger-backed millionaire who is running for major office for the first time.
To see just how hotly fought the race has become, forget the polls—some of which show Mr. Lamont having closed to within single digits among likely Democratic voters—and look at Mr. Lieberman himself.
He made the extraordinary declaration on July 3 that he intended to run as an independent if he lost to Mr. Lamont. (On Monday, he announced the formation of a new party in which he will, presumably, always be welcome: Connecticut for Lieberman.)
It’s a fascinating political story. But it has also come to embody something of a culture war, with liberal activists rousing opposition to Mr. Lieberman—largely because of his position on Iraq—and centrist allies rallying to his defense.
Certainly, some of Mr. Lieberman’s companions in the hawkish political universe see some deeper implications in his jarringly abrupt political decline.
“I’m concerned that Northeast liberals are trying to conflate the entire Iraq war with support for Israel and the failure of Middle East democratization into the same package,” said Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who added that if Mr. Lieberman were not an incumbent with a national profile, his tough foreign policy would disqualify him from running in the primary. “The power of those issues to keep Democratic primary voters in line may be waning.”
Indeed, Mr. Lieberman’s fate in the upcoming primary has become a matter of international concern.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was asked by officials and even people walking down the street, ‘What is going to happen to Joe Lieberman?’” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who just returned from a research project in Israel. “They are aware about this race, and they are concerned.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Lieberman has become a singular obsession for legions of readers of liberal political blogs. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga has appeared in Mr. Lamont’s campaign commercials and championed him on his well-read site, the Daily Kos. Other liberal blogs such as Americablog, Liberal Oasis and Atrios regularly feature scathing attacks on Mr. Lieberman
(The bloggers, in turn, have come in for criticism from conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote disparagingly of Mr. Moulitsas as a “keyboard kingpin.”)
This extraordinary interest has led to some uncomfortable moments. Mr. Lieberman’s supporters have come to suggest that much of the burgeoning liberal opposition to his candidacy is motivated by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment, pointing to comments such as the following, from “TDoff,” on HuffingtonPost.com: “Geez, if Lieberman loses his Senate seat, it may put his multi-million dollar graft as lobbyist for Israel at risk. You can bet he’ll run as a ‘Zionist Independent’ if he loses the democratic nomination.”
Mr. Lieberman’s actual positions on Middle East issues are squarely in the political mainstream: He has at times been more reserved than some of his colleagues in criticizing Palestinian leaders, and in 1992, he opposed the Israel lobby by supporting sales of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
But some of the most outspokenly Zionist Democrats have suggested that the current political climate has made Mr. Lieberman, as a prominent Jewish hawk, vulnerable to blog-driven criticism.
“We do have a problem with progressives and those in the blogosphere, because the Palestinian position seems to be perfect for the Internet world of pithy back-and-forth and 30-second You Tube tapes, where the Zionist position is more at home in a seven-page New York Review of Books article,” said Representative Anthony Weiner, a pro-Israel hawk who opposes the war in Iraq.
“The Israel issue is more a problem for the party than any one candidate,” said Dan Gerstein, a political consultant and informal advisor to the Lieberman campaign. “A lot more Jews voted for Bush than in 2000; it’s a reflection of weakened support among Democrats forIsrael and the war on terror.”
Mr. Gerstein says he has detected what he calls a “growing strain of anti-Semitism on the far left,” which he believes is in part fueling the strident opposition to Mr. Lieberman.
But for many Democratic voters and liberal activists closer to home, Mr. Lieberman’s position on Iraq and other issues simply puts him out of step with the party—and at odds with their case against the Bush administration.
Mr. Lamont, for his part, said that he has encountered suggestions on the campaign trail that Mr. Leiberman was excessively motivated by Zionism, but made it clear that he strongly condemned them.
“It’s bunk and it’s wrong,” he said, adding that since Sept. 11, he himself has become “more sympathetic to a feisty democracy that shares the values of the United States of America stuck in the middle of a pretty tough part of the world.”
But Mr. Lamont argues that regardless of his opponent’s motives, Mr. Lieberman’s unwavering support for the war in Iraq—he was one of only six Democrats voting in the Senate this month against amendments that called for troop withdrawal—will be the reason his party turns against him.
“Senator Lieberman, sometimes he seems to go out of his way to undermine the Democrats and poke a stick in the eye of Democrats,” Mr. Lamont said Monday evening as he sipped an iced tea and dug into a plate of potato skins in Wallingford. “It’s President Bush, aided by Senator Lieberman, in many cases, that has taken this country way off its historical norm.”
Similarly, the aforementioned liberal bloggers say that the anti-Semitism charge is just a feint to draw attention away from the broad and increasingly well-disciplined opposition to Mr. Lieberman among the party’s grassroots.
“There is a suspicion that the blogs are not challenging Lieberman for the reasons they say they are,” said Ezra Klein, a writing fellow at The American Prospect who has been critical of Mr. Lieberman. “That it is indicative of some larger and more pernicious influence. It’s a little bit harder to say that these are a bunch of liberals who have gotten organized and don’t like Joe Lieberman.”
It was not a coincidence, then, that a protester at Mr. Lieberman’s Irish-pub event on Monday morning carried a shoulder bag from Kos’ annual convention—filled with red buttons depicting Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Bush engaged in a kiss. And neither, at least by Mr. Lieberman’s reckoning, was the public scolding he got from Maura Keaney, a junior high-school teacher and Lamont campaign volunteer, who took him to task inside the Irish pub on Monday morning.
“I’m wondering why you’re being a ‘fair-weather Democrat,’ saying that you’ll only respect the Democratic primary if you win—isn’t that the epitome of a ‘fair-weather Democrat?” said Ms. Keaney.
“I’m gonna win,” responded Mr. Lieberman.
“And if you win, I will respect that,” Ms. Keaney said.
“I want ultimately to give a larger group—including a larger group of Democrats—the opportunity to vote in November,” said Mr. Lieberman.
“Aren’t Democrats smart enough to know when the primary is?” said Ms. Keaney.
“I hope so,” said Mr. Lieberman.
That argument, it turns out, may be the most persuasive for prominent figures within the Democratic Party, who have unmistakably tiptoed away from Mr. Lieberman in recent days. After initially declaring himself an unconditional supporter of Mr. Lieberman, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Charles Schumer joined his colleague, Senator Hillary Clinton, and announced that he would back the winner of the primary.
Senator John Kerry went a step further, declining even to support Mr. Lieberman over Mr. Lamont for the nomination.
“That’s great,” said Mr. Lieberman, when asked about Mrs. Clinton’s statement that she intends to back the winner of the Democratic primary. “Everybody else has said, including Senator Biden, ‘We’re focused on the primary; we’re redoubling our efforts to help Joe Lieberman win the Democratic primary.’”
And speaking of Mr. Biden, he was scheduled to appear with Mr. Lieberman on Monday at the pub, but failed to show. Mr. Lieberman explained that his colleague had just gotten in from Iraq the night before and was too exhausted to make the train up from Delaware.
“He came back late last night, and he said to me, really with great apologies, that he just couldn’t make that train from Wilmington,” Mr. Lieberman explained.
Bloggers pounced on the absence, saying that Mr. Biden had actually come back a full day earlier and had simply decided to skip the Lieberman event. A spokesman for Mr. Lieberman later acknowledged that Mr. Biden had returned over the weekend, but maintained that Mr. Biden had simply missed his train.
The increasingly chaotic political situation within the party has not gone unnoticed by the Republican opposition, who relish the national implications of the loss of a reliably Democratic seat. “If the Democrats split the vote, we can win, and if Connecticut goes for me, it pretty much makes sure the Senate stays in Republican hands,” said Alan Schlesinger, the Republican candidate for Mr. Lieberman’s seat. “It will not go Democrat.”
In assessing the effects of the contested primary, Republicans like Mr. Schlesinger find themselves in agreement with Mr. Lieberman’s centrist Democratic allies, and with the Senator himself.
“This is an old-fashioned ideological purge to enforce the narrow orthodoxy of the party,” said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute and editor of With All Our Might, a collection of essays calling for a stronger Democratic foreign policy.
“As a party, we always criticize the Republicans—rightly—that they have some litmus tests: ‘If you are not with us on this, then you are not really a Republican,’” said Mr. Lieberman at his event on Monday. “When we get to the point where we say to someone in office, ‘Hey, you have to agree with us 100 percent of the time or you are not a good member of the party,’ then that’s the beginning of the road to defeat for the party.”